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First Say Yes class: More earned college degrees, but dropout problem remains

The high school Class of 2013 was the first in Buffalo to benefit from Say Yes to Education, the nonprofit that promises graduates free tuition at state colleges and universities.

Four years later, more than a quarter of those who enrolled in college that first year had earned either a bachelor’s or associate degree. That's up from previous classes.

Similarly, that same percentage was still plugging along in pursuit of a college degree.

And the rest? Almost half had dropped out – the same stubborn problem Buffalo has seen for years.

That’s according to new data that for the first time provides a closer look at how the earliest class of Buffalo’s “last dollar” scholarship program has performed since walking onto campus.

That data also provide a glimpse into how big a job lies ahead for Say Yes.

“There are more kids going to college, which is a good thing; and there are more kids graduating, which is a good thing,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.

“In between,” he said, “there’s a whole lot of work to do.”

The arrival of Say Yes six years ago was viewed as a turning point 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 high-tech economy it is trying to build.

Buffalo has embraced the program, and most recently Say Yes announced two big donations – $10 million from the state and $25 million from a private donor – for an endowment to fund college tuition in Buffalo for generations to come.

But it’s evident by the data that this will be no quick fix. Rather, it will be a long, tough road building a college-going culture among students from an urban school district that, overall, has struggled academically.

“What I’m seeing with certain students is the mind-set of college,” said Stanley Simmons, the Say Yes coordinator at SUNY Buffalo State. “When they get here they’re still sort of not really getting this college thing in terms of how hard it’s going to be, the rigors and everything involved with a person making it through to college.”

College enrollment grows

Say Yes shared with The Buffalo News several years worth of data, which include some of its own record-keeping, as well as statistics it uses from the National Student Clearinghouse to track student outcomes in Buffalo. Figures for the program's 2018 college graduates have not been tabulated yet.

The data show:

  • Rising college enrollment: Sixty-seven percent of Buffalo students who graduated high school in 2017 enrolled in college the following fall. That’s up from 57 percent in 2012, the year before Say Yes came to Buffalo. It's also higher than the 62 percent matriculation rate among high school graduates from urban districts nationwide.
  • Big financial need: More than 5,100 Buffalo students have enrolled in college since 2013, but only about 60 percent actually received money from Say Yes for tuition. The others were covered completely by financial aid, which speaks to the extreme needs in Buffalo. About half of the Say Yes students come from families with a combined annual income of below $25,000.
  • A 10 percent match: Say Yes contributes $1 for every $10 awarded in financial aid. So far, the nonprofit has paid out more than $10 million to help cover tuition for Buffalo students awarded a total of $102 million in state, federal and institutional aid.
  • Declining student persistence: The percentage of Say Yes freshmen who returned for their sophomore year of college has continued to decline with each class, dropping from three-quarters of the students returning for their second year to 71 percent to 68 percent. That's lower than the national rate of 84 percent among urban schools. Among students from the Class of 2013, the inaugural Say Yes class, 27 percent were still in school four years later.
  • A bump in completion: Among more than 1,200 from the first Say Yes class, 346 graduated in four years with either an associate or bachelor’s degree. That’s the highest number among at least seven high school graduating classes from Buffalo, which was as far back as the data was available. In all, 27 percent from that first Say Yes class graduated in four years – 16 percent earning a bachelor's degree. Nationally, 40 percent earn a bachelor's in four years, according to the most recent figure available from the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • Almost half dropped out: Forty-six percent from that first Say Yes class had dropped out as of four years later. That is not unusual for Buffalo. That figure was just slightly higher than the college dropout rate for the three classes prior to Say Yes. Nationally, 31 percent of students were no longer in college and had not graduated six years after first entering.

It still leaves a bit of a murky picture.

Data on college progress tends to be measured over six years – not four, because most students nationwide do not graduate in four years. Not enough time has passed yet to discern how Buffalo stacks up on that measure since the arrival of Say Yes.

Figures from the National Student Clearinghouse show 35 percent of students from urban districts graduate within six years, Rust said.

“I never wanted to gauge our success off the first couple years. This has always been a long-term strategy,” Rust said. “In fact, the work only gets harder from here.”

Mentors matter

Say Yes Buffalo pays for tuition at New York’s colleges and universities, but only what’s not covered by state, federal and institutional aid designated toward tuition.

Students of Buffalo public and charter schools are eligible for up to a year after graduation and guaranteed 65 percent to 100 percent tuition depending on how long they have been enrolled in school in Buffalo.

The nonprofit also partners with more than 100 private colleges and universities, but those agreements come with stipulations, including a $5,000 annual cap for families earning more than $75,000.

Say Yes acknowledges it didn’t have the supports in place when the nonprofit first launched in Buffalo, but quickly realized the needs.

Paid summer internships to help students access the job market and focus on their career ahead was one.

“Another is our mentoring program where we pair rising seniors with a mentor who works with him or her through the first year of their higher-ed experience,” Rust said.

“It’s about three years old now for any one of our scholars that would like a mentor,” he said. “And we’ve shown that is a good persistence tool. Students with a mentor are persisting at a stronger rate than for those that don’t have one.”

Rust also pointed to efforts on campuses, particularly Erie Community College, SUNY Buffalo State and Medaille College, the three institutions with the most Say Yes students.

All three offer a voluntary, summer “bridge” program to help students get a jump on college.

Summer school support

At ECC, the program includes remedial help in math and English so the students are better prepared for college coursework when the semester begins in the fall, said Norah Clark, vice president of student affairs.

The problem is that the college only has the resources for 50 slots. More than 350 Say Yes students started at ECC in 2017 alone.

“What I believe we need is that same support for all Say Yes students,” Clark said. “The fact that we got students to college is great, but it’s not enough just to get them through the door.”

Over at Buffalo State, Simmons leads the college's Summer Success Academy, a five-week program that started Monday for some 30 Say Yes students, who will earn six college credits for taking part.

While the academic rigors of college may be new to them, Simmons finds most of his Say Yes students are more than capable in the classroom. It’s the challenges outside the classroom that often befall them, whether it’s the inability to pay for textbooks or dropping out to help support their families.

“They do not have those supports,” Simmons said, “so that when they hit a bump in the road –  academic, financial, emotional – their safety net is either not there or so small it can break them.”

Simmons is there to help them through during the semester.

His first-day orientation was part pep talk, part crash course in college expectations: Don't miss class, be on time, bring your books – all lessons they’ll need to succeed in college.

“Do you think you can handle that?” Simmons asked.

“Yes,” the class answered back.

“I didn’t hear that from everyone,” he responded.

But it came through loud and clear for freshman Rubaiya Toni.

"I was nervous about college," Toni, 17, said during a break. "But after I heard him talking today, I feel much better. Not anxious – just excited."

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