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Buffalo public and charter school students now have the opportunity to gain a free ride to Harvard. Or Duke. Or Notre Dame, Northwestern or Georgetown.

These five prestigious universities added their names to the growing list of private schools that have agreed to cover the tuition costs of all income-eligible students participating in the Say Yes to Education program.

Say Yes to Education founder George Weiss made the announcement Monday in Syracuse, the next nearest school district to have a Say Yes program.

“Say Yes is about hope,” Weiss said. “When you have these five great universities say, ‘We care about you, and we want to help you fulfill your dreams,’ I think that’s a great message to the kids.”

Duke, Georgetown, Harvard, Northwestern and Notre Dame join 24 other private institutions, as well as all 74 colleges and universities in the SUNY and CUNY systems, in providing scholarships for eligible Buffalo high school graduates.

Unlike some private colleges partnering with Say Yes, these five distinguished universities are placing no limit on the number of Say Yes students they will accept, as long as the students gain admission on their own merits.

“As many as can get accepted, they’d be delighted to receive,” Weiss said.

Buffalo students from families earning $75,000 or less would be eligible for fully covered tuition to a private college if they attended a Buffalo public or charter school since kindergarten.

There is no maximum income threshold for students who commit to attending one of the state colleges or universities, including the University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State and community colleges.

The percentage of tuition scholarship coverage decreases if the student attended Buffalo schools for fewer years, with students who enroll as late as ninth grade receiving 65 percent of tuition coverage.

Students from families earning more than $75,000 would still be eligible to receive grants of $5,000 a year from Say Yes if they choose to attend one of the private schools affiliated with the program.

The Buffalo chapter of Say Yes to Education was founded last year. The Class of 2013 is the first class to be eligible for Say Yes scholarships.

These scholarships provide gap funding that covers the difference between a college’s tuition and whatever other financial aid grants or scholarships a student receives.

The scholarship money – $18.5 million so far – is raised primarily through donations by Western New York businesses, organizations, families and individuals. Fundraising is ongoing as the organization works toward its initial goal of $30 million.

That investment of local, private dollars is crucial, said David Rust, executive director of the Say Yes Buffalo chapter.

“It’s been critical to Say Yes’ ability to recruit more private colleges,” he said. “They see a foundation that’s growing and committed to children citywide.”

The list of participating colleges includes numerous local institutions – Canisius College, Medaille College, Niagara University, D’Youville College, Daemen College, Hilbert College, Houghton College, St. Bonaventure University, Trocaire College, Villa Maria College and Bryant & Stratton College.

The list also includes many outside the region, including Ivy League schools such as Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and now Harvard.

Donald C. Bishop, Notre Dame’s associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment, said in a statement that more young students need to be inspired with the knowledge that no level of college is beyond their grasp.

“Too many students of great ability, creativity and heart from families with no tradition of going to college are not looking at the top universities with a sense of possibility,” he stated. “We want to reach out to these students earlier and provide the guidance and support to inspire them to match their talents with the right college choices.”

For a full list of all participating colleges and more information about the Say Yes Buffalo program, visit www.SayYesBuffalo.org

The scholarships provided by Say Yes are only one component of the overall program taking shape in Buffalo. The program also will provide an entire toolbox of student support services that will continue to roll out over the next several years – ranging from tutoring services to free legal aid and health care.

“A school like Harvard is not an option for every kid right now, but what we’re working on is providing students in every school the tools to be accepted and successful at schools like Harvard,” Rust said.

By next school year, Say Yes site facilitators will be working to provide support services to students in 60 percent of all Buffalo public schools, and half of all the schools also will begin offering after-school and summer programs for students.

Say Yes Buffalo currently has 27 facilitators in Buffalo schools and expects to have 35 in place by October. Facilitators are scheduled to be in every Buffalo public school by 2015-16.

email: stan@buffnews.com