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State and Say Yes jockey over who pays 'last dollar' for Buffalo students

A key question about the state’s new tuition-free scholarship program for students attending the State University of New York is what it will mean for kids in Buffalo.

Students who graduate high school in the city already have the promise of free college, thanks to Say Yes to Education. The highly-touted non-profit – viewed as a game-changer when it arrived in Buffalo five years ago – provides what’s called a “last dollar” scholarship that covers their tuition at SUNY schools after state, federal and institutional aid are taken into account.

But that’s also what the state’s new Excelsior Scholarship is supposed to do.

So which one picks up the tab for students from Buffalo, and why could it matter to students?

Say Yes was under the assumption it was the state's Excelsior program.

The state counters that  it’s Say Yes.

“Excelsior is the last, last dollar,” said Morris Peters, a spokesman for the state Division of Budget.

For Say Yes, the emergence of Excelsior was anticipated to mean millions of dollars in savings for the non-profit -  money it could then turn around and use to help the neediest of students with other college expenses.

Say Yes was hesitant to elaborate, though, until it had more details from the state.

Other potential models, however, could involve helping the neediest of Say Yes students pay for books and fees, which are a big cost. While tuition at SUNY was $6,470 this year, fees range from $1,210 to $3,100, or an average of $1,640. SUNY estimate books and supplies are another $1,340.

But the organization acknowledged there’s still some confusion over how the two “last-dollar” scholarship programs would complement each other, including which one covers the remaining cost of tuition for Buffalo students.

Say Yes – started nearly 30 years ago in Philadelphia by money manager George Weiss – came to Buffalo in 2012 with the goal of increasing college access.  Since then, the program --  which has chapters in Syracuse and Harlem, as well -- has helped send some 4,000 Buffalo students to college, including 992 from the Class of 2016. It also helps Buffalo students attend private colleges and universities, with that annual aid capped at $5,000 for families earning over $75,000.

The Excelsior Scholarship – championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo – was approved by New York State with the promise of free SUNY tuition next year for families earning less than $100,000, a cap that rises to $125,000 after three years.

Free SUNY tuition plan could alter New York's higher-ed landscape

Say Yes is still trying to get clarification from the state about how much Buffalo students actually will benefit from Excelsior, because there’s language in the bill that could be interpreted differently, said David P. Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.

In some parts of the bill, Rust said, the language refers to the Excelsior Scholarship kicking in after state, federal and institutional aid. But in other spots,  it references state, federal and “other scholarships” -- which could be read to mean that Say Yes, not Excelsior, pays for Buffalo students.

Rust said he has received different interpretations from different sources.

If Excelsior did cover public tuition for Buffalo students,  it could change both the financial projections for Say Yes and its model moving forward – opening the door for the non-profit to do even more for Buffalo students with the most need.

“We think Excelsior is a great effort by the governor to help remove some barriers for a lot of folks,” said Alphonso O’Neil-White, chairman of the Say Yes Buffalo Scholarship Board. “It really amplifies what we’re doing with Say Yes.

“The question for us is ‘How does the Excelsior Scholarship impact our financial model?’”O’Neil-White said. “It could potentially help us do more.”

But if Say Yes is responsible for picking up the tuition tab for Buffalo students - as it would appear -  things will proceed as they have.

The organization has so far raised about $25 million for its promise of providing free public tuition and $10 million was recently included for Say Yes in the Buffalo Billion II from the state.

“We still support the increased access to higher education,” Rust said. “Regardless of where Excelsior ultimately falls, Say Yes will be here supporting the universal scholarship to students in Buffalo’s public and charter schools.”

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