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.