Our Strategy

With nearly 30 years of experience, Say Yes works with cities and counties to transform civic infrastructure around the goals of every public school student not only graduating high school — but doing so with the preparation and support to attain, afford and complete a postsecondary education. Say Yes builds on strengths — the strengths of every child, whose interests and talents are nurtured; and the strengths of communities, whose existing assets serve as the foundation for a comprehensive (and sustainable) set of services to help ensure students achieve developmental milestones on the path to success in college, career and life.

The Evolution of a Big Idea

Say Yes was founded in 1987 by money manager George Weiss, who boldly promised 112 sixth graders at a Philadelphia elementary school that he would pay to send them to college if they graduated high school. Weiss also provided those economically-disadvantaged students and their families with the academic and social-emotional support services necessary to seize that opportunity. He made similar promises, over the next two decades, to five additional cohorts of public school children, ranging in size from 50 to 300, in Cambridge, Mass.; Harlem in New York City; Hartford, Conn., and Philadelphia. In each instance, these students were far more likely than other students in the district from similar economic backgrounds to graduate high school and earn college degrees.

In 2008, Say Yes embarked on a far more ambitious effort: extending its’ strategy across entire communities — at scale, and in a way that would be sustainable, year after year. Beginning with a pilot that year in the upstate New York city of Syracuse — and extending in the years since to the nearby city of Buffalo (2012) and Guilford County (Greensboro-High Point), North Carolina (2015), Say Yes and its local partners provide access to college or other post-secondary scholarships to every public high school graduate. Public high school graduates who gain admission to in-state public colleges and universities are guaranteed free tuition — regardless of family income and after federal and state aid have been taken into account — through a locally-raised scholarship fund. Similar, “last dollar” tuition scholarships are made available to students who qualify based on family income (typically those whose households earn less than $75,000 annually) by the more than 100 private colleges and universities of the Say Yes Higher Education Compact.

Working with the national Say Yes organization, the local Say Yes partnerships leverage those scholarships and other incentives (including $15 million in seed capital from Say Yes National) to bring a community’s stakeholders together to give all public school students and their families access to a menu of support services. Those services — which may include tutoring, medical care, counseling and pro bono legal counsel — are offered to families before kindergarten and continuing through grade 12, and are intended to eliminate predictable barriers along the pathway to postsecondary achievement.

Say Yes is currently demonstrating the efficacy of its community-wide strategy in its initial proof-point cities (such as Buffalo.) Say Yes will continue to add locations and is also working with new national partners to develop and launch a new, fee-based center, which will share expertise and provide technical assistance on a larger national scale. More information will be available on this initiative in Spring 2017.

The 5 Citywide Core Principles

Hundreds of thousands of students across the nation drop out of high schools each year, and hundreds of thousands more who earn their high school diplomas are woefully unprepared to succeed in college or other postsecondary degree programs. Most strategies that have sought to improve urban schools have proved to be short-term and disjointed, lacking in infrastructure and administered in silos that do not connect the dots between developmental stages (such as early childhood, K-12, and postsecondary credentialing) or critical service areas (education, health, mental health.) The following five principles are the critical pillars on which the Say Yes community-wide strategy is built:


Postsecondary Access and Success for All


Data-Driven, Continuous Improvement


Pathway to Success (Prenatal to Career)


Cross-Sector and Cross-Government Collaboration


Scale and Sustainability

City as the Unit of Change

Decades spent in frustrated pursuit of quick, isolated fixes are beginning to drive the development of a new movement — one that understands that the most promising hope for shattering predictable barriers to academic achievement and positive life outcomes for students in America’s cities is a comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable community-wide approach. Say Yes and its partners share this conviction and seek to develop dynamic, cross-sector alliances that include city and county government – as well as school districts and school boards; parents; the local business community; unions; higher education institutions, and faith-based and other philanthropic organizations. In each Say Yes community, these stakeholders meet together around a common table on a regular basis, in support of moving successfully along the predictive path to postsecondary and life success.

City Government

Mayors and other elected (and appointed) city officials play critical roles in driving the local Say Yes strategy.

Corporate Leaders

Business partners and leaders help raise money for local Say Yes scholarship funds, & benefit from a more educated workforce.


Families not only have access to scholarships and support services, but parent leaders help drive the Say Yes partnership.


With corporate leaders, local philanthropic groups help raise millions for scholarships & align investments to address specific pinch points.

Professional Associations

Leadership from teachers unions and other professional organizations serve as problem solvers and key partners for Say Yes.

School District

District leaders & teachers are represented in Say Yes governance, aligning & driving improvement strategies for classroom & school to support all.

Higher Education

Local Say Yes partnerships are comprehensive, with college and university leaders working side by side with those from K-12.

Community Based Organizations

Local CBOs play a leadership role; deliver supports to ensure postsecondary readiness and participate in the Say Yes Postsecondary Planning System.

County Government

County government aligns existing resources to goals of postsecondary readiness & success, including support to school-based family support specialist

Religious Leaders

Religious leaders help spread the word about scholarships & services, and where possible provide supports (such as tutoring) at houses of worship

The Say Yes Theory of Action

Say Yes recognizes the critical roles of structures, strategies and culture in changing postsecondary completion outcomes — sustainably, and at scale. The following five elements comprise its Theory of Action in each of its partner communities:


100% Tuition Scholarships & $15M Seed Capital


Cross-Government & Sector Collaboration + Strategic Data Approach


Comprehensive academic, health, financial and social/emotional supports

Post-Secondary Completion