Free college tuition starts now for Cleveland students as Say Yes to Education arrives
Updated Jan 18; Posted Jan 18
By Patrick O’Donnell, The Plain Dealer
CLEVELAND, Ohio – College will be free for virtually all Cleveland school district graduates starting with this year’s senior class, after the much-anticipated launch today of the Say Yes to Education college scholarship and student support program in the city.
A team of city, county, philanthropic and Say Yes leaders announced the scholarships at a rally at John Marshall High School to cheering students this morning, pledging that the ever-increasing cost of tuition will no longer block Cleveland school district graduates from attending college. Officials have already raised more than 70 percent of the $125 million they need to pay for scholarships for the next 25 years.
Though students and families will still have to pay living expenses, the new Say Yes scholarships will cover all remaining tuition costs once federal and state aid is used.
“Today, we are guaranteeing that your dreams can come true,” school district CEO Eric Gordon told students.
Say Yes founder George Weiss, a New York businessman, told students that he wants the scholarships to give students hope.
“It’s about raising expectations for the young people,” he said.
Students were ecstatic about not having to worry about paying for college.
“It will make a big difference,” said John Marshall senior James Woolfolk Jr. “Now I don’t have to work two jobs to make it through. I can just start and I don’t have to worry about being in debt and owing anybody money.”
And Yasmin Adam, an immigrant from Sudan, said the announcement will let her drop plans to work for a few years to save money before going to nursing school.
“I was scared to go to college, because I’m the first generation (in her family to go),” she said. “When I came here I lost all hope that I would go to college and chase my dream.”
And senior Lynae Howard called the new scholarships “amazing.”
“Nobody wants to be paying loans for the rest of their life,” she said. “This given to us can stop that. I am very grateful that this is given to us.”
Others said the scholarships will help more than just the students. By offering free college, they said, more students will be better educated and can improve the region’s economy as adults.
“This will provide access for low and middle-incomes students in a way they haven’t seen before,” said Helen Williams of the Cleveland Foundation, a major partner in bringing Say Yes here.
Cleveland has long had lower rates of adults with college degrees than other cities. And while the district has been trying to push more students towards college or other training after graduation, it hasn’t worked. The percentage of Cleveland school district graduates attending college has declined from 54 percent in 2011 to 40 percent in 2017.
“That’s unacceptable,” Gordon said. So he and others wanted to find a way to ease the financial barriers to students attending and eliminating the loans that cripple them later.
After two and half years of planning, Cleveland becomes the fourth city to partner with New York-based Say Yes to Education will be a spark to change that trend. Say Yes is one of more than 200 so-called “College Promise” programs in the country, where all students of a district are promised free tuition at certain colleges if they graduate from high school and are accepted and eligible colleges.
Say Yes is already in place in Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., and Guilford County, N.C.
Say Yes goes a step further than a typical promise program by helping communities add social support services to schools so students have a better chance of succeeding in school and reaching college.
The Say Yes national organization contributes $15 million to each city’s efforts for organizational and administrative costs, while offering financial and planning expertise. But each community must raise its own scholarship money and arrange for services inside schools.
Donations from 40 Northeast Ohio companies, foundations and individuals have already covered $88.4 million of the program’s $125 million scholarship fundraising goal – more than 70 percent of the total – putting it far ahead of other promise programs around the country that started with lower amounts raised and then struggled to pull in the final dollars.
“We are very confident that we will do what we need to do,” said Paul Clark, the regional president of PNC bank in Cleveland.
Cleveland Foundation CEO Ronn Richard told students today these donations should send them a clear message: “Cleveland believes in you.”
The amount from each donor has not been released, though the Cleveland Foundation is the dominant donor. Other well-known donors include the George Gund Foundation, Key Bank Foundation and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s Haslam 3 Foundation. Haslam’s brother Bill, the governor of Tennessee, started a statewide, but more limited, college promise program in that state.
Here are key details about the program. Information is also available at www.sayyescleveland.org.
Click here for video of the full announcement rally.