Say Yes to Education rode into Buffalo four years ago offering hope to a poor city and its struggling school district with the promise of free college tuition for students who graduate from high school.
Since then, the nonprofit organization aimed at improving urban education has helped send some 3,000 students to college and grow the proportion of kids from Buffalo moving on to higher education. Many are minorities.
Most of the public high schools in Buffalo have seen an upswing in the percentage of students going to college, as two-thirds of graduates from the Class of 2015 showed up on college campuses in the fall.
Some of the biggest gains came at high schools that traditionally sent the fewest students on to college. That includes South Park High School in South Buffalo, Burgard High School on Kensington Avenue and Riverside Institute of Technology in Riverside.
The largest impact was felt at Emerson School of Hospitality on West Chippewa Street. Sixty percent of its graduates enrolled in college the past three years, compared to 44 percent the three years prior to Say Yes – a swing of 16 percentage points.
“Our kids are really interested in furthering their education and having a better lifestyle,” said Debbie White-Stokes, the school’s interim principal. “We talk to them a lot about it, and Say Yes has played a huge part in helping us with them.”
Those are some of the findings from the data provided by Say Yes as it pledges free college tuition to a fourth class of Buffalo high school students that graduated in June.
The arrival of Say Yes has been viewed as a game-changer in Buffalo, not just by families staring at the rising cost of college but by a city in need of a more educated workforce for the new medical and high-tech economy it is trying to create.
But is it working?
And in a district where only 61 percent of students graduate high school, how many students are ready for the rigors of college?
Superintendent Kriner Cash acknowledged that not all students come out of Buffalo schools college-ready and the district needs to better prepare them.
But success is also going to depend on the students seizing this college opportunity, Cash said.
“I can’t make a kid be successful,” Cash said. “At the end of the day, it’s going to be about hard work.”
“Highly encouraged,” said David P. Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “I think it’s proof that this really hard, complex work can be done, and all of our kids can succeed.”
In fact, Rust said, the real story of Say Yes won’t be told until 10 to 20 years from now.
Say Yes origins
Money manager George Weiss founded Say Yes in Philadelphia nearly 30 years ago and brought it to Buffalo in 2012 with the goal of increasing college access by eliminating one of the biggest barriers: cost.
The nonprofit pays for tuition at New York’s colleges and universities, but only what’s not covered by state, federal and institutional aid.
Students of Buffalo public and charter schools are eligible for the “last dollar” scholarship for up to a year after graduation and guaranteed 65 to 100 percent of tuition depending on how long they have been enrolled in school in Buffalo. College fees aren’t covered.
The organization also partners with more than 90 private colleges and universities, but those agreements come with some stipulations, including a $5,000 annual cap for families earning over $75,000.
So far, Say Yes has raised more than $25 million to fund the endeavor.
A closer look at the data from Say Yes and the National Student Clearinghouse, which collects enrollment data from colleges and universities, provides a clearer picture of this new college-going culture in Buffalo.
A few of the highlights:
• The percentage of Buffalo students enrolling in college has improved since Say Yes began with its first class in 2013.
During the Say Yes era, 67 percent have enrolled in college the fall after graduation, up from 58 percent the three years prior to the scholarship program coming to Buffalo.
That’s a total of 2,947 students who received tuition money from Say Yes to start college the fall after graduation.
• Nearly three out of four Buffalo students using the Say Yes scholarship are minorities. Almost half are black, 10 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are Asian. A quarter are white.
Nearly nine out of 10 students receiving the scholarship come from families that earn less than $50,000 a year.
“It’s a huge deal for equity in the city,” Rust said.
• Students at high schools across the city are using the scholarship but to varying degrees.
Emerson, the International Preparatory School at Grover on the West Side and McKinley High School on Elmwood Avenue saw the biggest improvement in their percentage of college-bound graduates.
City Honors has the highest percentage of students going off to college. When it comes to sheer volume, Hutchinson-Central Technical High School sends the most students to college; Math, Science Technology Preparatory School on East Delavan Avenue sends the fewest.
Those graduating from Buffalo charter schools account for 12 percent of the students participating in Say Yes.
• For every dollar Say Yes contributes, another $10 is awarded in public and private aid.
Since 2013, Say Yes has paid out $4.8 million in scholarships to cover college costs for students who received a total of $48.8 million in state, federal and institutional aid.
It reflects one of the more subtle but critical pieces of the scholarship program – helping students fill out the all-important financial aid form, known as FAFSA.
“There is no private or public source that can do this alone,” Rust said.
• Four-year colleges are favored; public institutions are more popular.
Sixty-eight percent of Buffalo’s graduates enrolled in public colleges and universities during the Say Yes era, compared to 32 percent who chose to attend private schools. That’s a bump of 3 percentage points in the number of Buffalo students attending public colleges since Say Yes pledged to cover state tuition.
Fifty-seven percent enrolled in four-year colleges coming out of high school; 43 percent chose two-year schools.
Four percent went to college out of state.
• Three out of four students from the Class of 2013 who enrolled in college persisted to their sophomore year, according to the most recent data available.
The data also suggests Buffalo students are less likely to drop out if attending a four-year college. Their “persistence” rate is 85 percent at four-year colleges, compared to 61 percent at two-year schools.
• ECC is the top draw.
The Say Yes Class of 2015 enrolled at 55 different institutions last fall, but ECC took in about a third of them.
Last year, ECC took in the most Buffalo students, 314, followed by SUNY Buffalo State, 147; Medaille College, 88; University at Buffalo, 78; Villa Maria College, 49; Niagara County Community College, 39; and Canisius College, 31.
Earning a degree
While 67 percent of Buffalo graduates enrolling in college is encouraging, Say Yes is keeping its eye on the larger goal: Not only getting students into college but getting them out with their degrees.
That’s not going to be easy.
Consider Buffalo’s pre-Say Yes Class of 2008. Twenty-eight percent of those who graduated high school went on to earn either an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
The outcome was roughly the same for the Class of 2009.
“Clearly, we want to see a significant increase in those six-year graduation rates,” Rust said. “That’s the data point you really want to see in your local economy.”
Say Yes, which spent the past four years laying the groundwork in Buffalo, has matured into its next phase, which is better tracking the progress of individual students and working with colleges to provide Say Yes students with the help they need to succeed.
“There’s a lot of work in the years ahead,” said Ben Packer, executive vice president of student affairs at Erie Community College.
“We have to focus on not just getting them to college but keeping them, and not just getting them to ECC but transferring to four-year colleges,” Packer said.
ECC, in particular, has found that many of the Buffalo students coming to the two-year school on Say Yes scholarships aren’t ready for college.
The only criteria for admission to the community college is a high school diploma, and ECC enrolls about 600 Say Yes students at any one time during the school year.
That influx has forced the college to try to do a better job tracking student progress and connecting them with the services they may need to be successful.
A voluntary summer program, for example, introduces the students to college before the semester begins and has shown some positive results, Packer said.
“We’re getting such a mass of them we need really intrusive intervention, just like they’re applying in K to 12,” Packer said. “Short of that, it’s going to be hard to see a big difference in the outcomes.”
Other colleges have fared better.
In some cases, students may have difficulty adjusting during their first semester, but they tend to settle in by the second, said Hal D. Payne, vice president for student affairs at SUNY Buffalo State.
Otherwise, Payne said, the grades of the Say Yes students are comparable to those of the rest of the student body.
“It’s not going to be a cake walk,” said Jajuan Reeves, a McKinley graduate and sophomore at Villa Maria College. “But when you take time and study and do what you came to do, you’re going to have a great time.”
Reeves was among the students at last week’s two-day Say Yes workshop for some 200 recent Buffalo graduates headed to college in the fall.
The first-time event served as a college primer that offered tips and advice from faculty and Say Yes veterans like Reeves and Sade Hellams, a junior at SUNY Fredonia.
“It’s OK to get tutoring,” the City Honors graduate told her Say Yes peers. “When I first started, I was a little embarrassed that I might need help.”
It’s this type of support for students done through Say Yes that often gets overlooked, Cash said.
Say Yes has expanded its reach to include a wide range of services in Buffalo Public Schools, such as summer-enrichment and mentoring programs, mental health clinics, legal services and assistance applying for college.
Cash believes those are just as critical as the college scholarship.
“I really do,” Cash said. “You’re not always hearing about these others, but they’re putting money into all of that. They understand, like I do, that college graduation rates begin at preschool.”
The other thing the data don’t show is the emergence of Say Yes as an important power broker in Buffalo, said Samuel L. Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.
Say Yes has brought stakeholders to the table – the mayor, higher-education institutions and the business community – to rally around education in Buffalo and keep a watchful eye, Radford said.
And that’s provided stability in a district with more than its share of turmoil, he said.
“Is it working?” Radford said. “That’s an understatement.”