November 9, 2015
A hailstorm of white and green confetti descended on a crowd of about 800 students, parents and community leaders who packed the gym at Ragsdale High School in Jamestown, North Carolina on September 17.
But this was no pep rally: they had gathered to celebrate the possibility of the school’s students – as well as every graduate of the Guilford County Schools – having access to an affordable college or other postsecondary education.
On that cloudless morning, Say Yes to Education – a national nonprofit that works with communities to make available scholarships, as well as academic and non-academic supports – announced that Guilford County had won a national competition to be its next partner community.
Graduates of the Guilford County Schools who meet residency and other requirements will qualify for “last dollar” tuition scholarships, after federal and state aid, to every public college and university in the state, subject to their admission. Guilford County Schools graduates will also have access to scholarships covering tuition and fees at dozens of private colleges and universities in North Carolina, 20 other states and the District of Columbia that are among the 100 members of the Say Yes National Higher Education Compact.
While the private college scholarships are subject to family income, the public institution scholarships are not. Students who enroll in a Say Yes private compact institution – whose family income is above the income cap (typically $75,000 annually) – will still be eligible for grants of up to $5,000 per year. The first scholarships will be awarded to students graduating high school in spring 2016.
I was fortunate to bear witness to the announcement that day, the kind of event I would have covered as an education correspondent at The New York Times. In 2013, I left the paper after a quarter century to join the team at Say Yes. I did so because I believe its strategy could serve as a model for other communities seeking to make college more attainable as well as to pave a pathway to postsecondary readiness.
While the Say Yes Guilford partnership will determine the support services it will offer, other Say Yes communities have made available tutoring and summer camps; opened medical clinics, and offered families free legal assistance. The Say Yes national organization invests $15 million in its partner communities, which the Say Yes Guilford partnership expects to leverage by realigning existing public resources with additional private capital raised locally.
In addition to the Guilford County Schools, the Say Yes Guilford partnership includes Guilford County; the cities of Greensboro and High Point; the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro; the High Point Community Foundation, and the Guilford Education Alliance.
In becoming a Say Yes partner, Guilford County, with a school district of 72,000, joins two New York cities: Syracuse, where the organization piloted its community strategy beginning in 2009, and Buffalo, where it has embarked on a fuller implementation, since 2012. Founded in 1987 by money manager George Weiss, the organization initially offered scholarships and supports to cohorts of as many 300 public school children in other cities.
While the “last dollar” private college scholarships are provided by the institutions themselves, the scholarships to in-state public colleges and universities will be paid by a local endowment fund. That fund is intended to be large enough — $70 million by 2021 — to send eligible Guilford County Schools graduates to public colleges and universities, tuition-free, in perpetuity.
Before green lighting Guilford County, Say Yes President Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey and Chief Operating Officer Gene Chasin told the community it would need to raise at least 40 percent of that target, or $28 million. In announcing its selection, Weiss applauded the community for raising more than $32 million, in little more than a year.
“It is a happy joyous day for us,’’ said Maurice “Mo” Green, the Guilford County Schools’ Superintendent, “to think about all the young people that will benefit from this.”