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Editorial: Policy undermines Say Yes mission

A new U.S. Department of Education policy that could cost beneficiaries of the Say Yes program needs to be rescinded. The policy could delay scholarship payments to students who would then risk incurring tuition late fees. And for what valuable public purpose?

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., spoke out against the ill-conceived policy in which only two private scholarship providers – the United Negro College Fund and the Hispanic Scholarship Fund – have direct access to financial aid data from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Also harmed is the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo – as well as similar foundations across the country – which also administer significant scholarship programs and are prevented from seeing the data.

Schumer is exactly right when he said the Department of Education must make that data available to a broader group of private scholarship providers, ensuring that Say Yes program students get well-earned aid. He needs to keep on this, as should Reps. Brian Higgins, D-Buffalo, and Chris Collins, R-Clarence.

This new federal policy undermines these organizations’ ability to calculate financial aid. You cannot calculate a last-dollar scholarship without identifying the first dollars.

Say Yes operates in Buffalo and Syracuse. Buffalo’s Say Yes program has helped 2,587 students reach college since 2011 by providing that last bit of aid plus wraparound services. Schumer wrote Education Secretary Betsy DeVos a letter expressing his concerns that the new rules might weaken the program’s effectiveness.

DeVos should pay particular attention to the senator’s letter and reconsider these potentially damaging new rules. Meanwhile, Say Yes to Buffalo and its partners have worked to lessen any damage, guaranteeing students they will not have to pay late tuition fees in case of delayed scholarship payments.

Say Yes is dedicated to making college access as easy as possible by getting what is owed for each student directly from higher education partners. Say Yes works with the entire State University of New York and City University of New York system and offers more than 100 private institutions that students are also eligible to attend. The bulk of Say Yes students – 85 percent – attend local institutions. The five largest are the University at Buffalo; SUNY Buffalo State; Erie Community College; Medaille; and Villa Maria colleges.

It is disappointing to see the administration put up barriers for higher education access, especially given that they harm students who need the most help. It’s contrary to what all Americans – in particular, those in Buffalo who benefit from Say Yes – want to see.

Say Yes is a strong, established organization that has deep relationships with higher education partners. It has been able to devise a student-friendly process that will not put holds on students’ accounts, or prevent them from registering for classes or have them incurring late charges.

But this issue is an example of how quickly federal policy changes can weaken needed services and scholarships in a community such as Buffalo.

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