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State awards $10M to Say Yes Buffalo, settles who pays 'last dollar' scholarships

Friday's announcement that the state awarded $10 million to the Say Yes Buffalo scholarship program to help cover college expenses for recent Buffalo high school graduates didn’t come as a huge surprise.

The grant was made public last year as part of the Buffalo Billion II.

The announcement, however, did provide more clarity about the relationship between Say Yes and the state’s new Excelsior Scholarship program.

Both are what’s called “last dollar” scholarships.

And both cover student tuition at SUNY schools only after state, federal and institutional aid are taken into account, raising questions about which scholarship program would pick up the tuition tab for students from Buffalo.

The $10 million settles that.

Excelsior will be considered the “last, last dollar,” meaning Say Yes will continue to pay for the scholarships to ensure Buffalo students get free tuition to state colleges and universities. The $10 million from the state, meanwhile, will go toward the non-profit’s endowment campaign.

More specifically, the money from the state will cover books, fees and room and board for students with the greatest financial need.

“I saw this as a mutually agreeable compromise that helped both Say Yes and Excelsior,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “Financially, we break even, which is part of the compromise we came to.

“The state didn’t have to come to the table and work on a compromise with us,” Rust said. “I’m grateful to the state and this investment will support important non-tuition expenses for students with high needs from Buffalo public and charter schools.”

It’s still possible for Buffalo students to be eligible for Excelsior, but that will be difficult because the terms are narrow and only a few students from the city qualified for the state scholarship this past year, according to Say Yes.

This is the second large gift Say Yes has received in as many months.

In April, Say Yes announced a $25 million challenge gift from a donor who wanted to remain anonymous. The goal is to raise $100 million for an endowment so that the Say Yes scholarship – viewed as a game-changer for Buffalo since it began in 2012 – will last in perpetuity.

The $10 million from the state was made known last year as part of the Buffalo Billion II, but details were hammered out earlier this year and a formal announcement was made Friday at McKinley High School by Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and other government officials.

Hochul, who is running for re-election, said Say Yes is well on its way to reaching its $100 million goal so that “every baby born in the City of Buffalo will have the opportunity to go to college.”

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