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The Say Yes Buffalo scholarship program has resulted in 58 percent of eligible public school graduates attending a partnering college this fall and receiving fully covered tuition benefits.

This new data, which followed the first eligible graduates – the Class of 2013 – found that 91 percent of all graduating seniors in the Buffalo Public Schools were eligible for Say Yes tuition scholarships and that 83 percent applied for the assistance.

But 17 percent of eligible graduates did not apply for Say Yes aid, and a quarter of those who did apply either didn’t go to college or attended a college not affiliated with Say Yes.

Did Say Yes leaders expect just under 60 percent of qualifying students to take advantage of the program’s college opportunity?

“Our goal is 100 percent,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “That is always our goal, but it’s unrealistic in Year One.”

This year’s baseline data will allow the organization’s Community Leadership Council to set more concrete participation goals for the next few years, Rust said.

Burgard High School graduate Carlos Williams, an artist, was among the Class of 2013 graduates who decided to attend a Say Yes partner school this fall after hearing about the program. The cash-poor student, who paid for his prom expenses by selling hand-drawn portraits for $5 to $10 apiece, is now majoring in graphic design at Villa Maria College.

Williams said he was impressed with how much help he received signing up for Say Yes assistance – full tuition to the private college. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is easy,’ ” he recalled.

Many other students followed in Williams’ footsteps, but many others either didn’t or couldn’t.

In terms of raw numbers, Say Yes produced 903 program scholars from the Buffalo Public Schools out of 1,701 graduates. Some were ineligible for assistance because they hadn’t been students within the district for the minimum length of time. An additional 92 Say Yes scholars came from participating charter schools.

A main goal of Say Yes is to see overall college enrollment of Buffalo students increase – with or without tuition scholarship assistance. That information will not be available for several more months, Rust said, because it has not yet been released by the National Student Clearinghouse, which keeps national student enrollment, retention and graduation data.

Say Yes spent $930,000 from its scholarship fund this year to close the tuition gap for eligible Say Yes students. But Rust said the organization’s private dollars were able to leverage more than $7 million in additional state and federal tuition aid.

That’s a huge achievement, he said.

“Not many programs are showing that type of return on investment,” he said. “That’s a massive return on the scholarship program, and it’s an investment in human potential, too. It’s the best kind of investment.”

Williams, who moved with his mother from Florida after watching her suffer for years with physical abuse and drug addiction, said he hopes college will be his path to a better future.

“Seeing my mom struggle in Florida,” he said, “it really showed me that without a college degree, you have no way of reaching success in your life.”

Say Yes counts as student scholars all students who receive tuition scholarships, grants for room and board, and other grants through either Say Yes or its partnering private colleges or public state and New York City colleges.

In addition, the organization counts all students who receive enough federal and state tuition grants to cover their tuition costs, even if Say Yes contributes none of its own scholarship money toward the student’s tuition.

Rust said those students count because the Buffalo School District saw a 65 percent increase in completed student financial aid forms, thanks to Say Yes and the one-on-one student assistance provided by University at Buffalo graduate students.

Although many private, four-year colleges have partnered with Say Yes to provide fully covered tuition for eligible students, the numbers of Buffalo students enrolling in such colleges were low overall, mostly in the single digits. A major exception was Medaille College, which has made a significant commitment to the Say Yes program by enrolling 130 students this year and providing $520,000 in Say Yes scholarships. Coming in second among private schools was Williams’ school, Villa Maria, which offers both two- and four-year programs and enrolled 37 Say Yes students. Canisius College enrolled 35.

The largest group of Say Yes scholars – 480 students – enrolled at either Erie Community College or Niagara County Community College.

For more on this story, visit the School Zone blog at www.buffalonews.com/schoolzone

email: stan@buffnews.com