Correction: The broadcast version of this story that aired on some Innovation Trail stations quoted Syracuse University tuition at around $50,000. In fact, it is nearly $40,000.
It's an ambitious idea:
Offer free college tuition to an entire school district, so that every student knows that higher education is a possibility, from day one.
That's the promise made by the nonprofit "Say Yes to Education." The education reform group partnered with the Syracuse school district in 2007, with the goal of increasing high school and college graduation rates.
Say Yes is the brainchild of Connecticut philanthropist George Weiss, who started small, working with individual schools, and often a single cohort of students. The Syracuse experiment ventures farther afield to partner for the first time with an entire district.
Here's how it works: students with a family income of under $75,000 in Syracuse are promised free tuition to any school they get into. Some schools, including Syracuse University, don't even apply the income limit to admitted students.
That's the deal that Deka Dancil, an outgoing 19-year-old, got from Say Yes. She graduated from a public high school on the East Side of Syracuse and started college at Syracuse University last fall.
"It was a shocker," says Dancil. "High school didn't prepare me for this ... my writing skills, my vocabulary, my grammar, everything - I'm still working on it. The only thing I probably could get it is like quantitative skills, like math and stuff."
That's not the only way the deck was stacked against Deka. First, fewer than 60 percent of Syracuse students graduate from high school at all. The district has the lowest test scores of New York's major cities.
And then there's SU's tuition: almost $40,000 a year - before housing. That would have been a really big challenge for a young woman who has been largely responsible for taking care of herself since she was 14. Last year she worked three jobs to pay rent for her apartment - this year she's taking out loans so she can live on campus.
But things are starting to look up for her. With her tuition paid for, her path forward is clearer.
"It's like a whole different world," Deka says. "It's like I'm moving away from the bad things that were in the past to the good things that are now."
Paying the bills
Say Yes has brokered the same deal that Deka gets at SU - full tuition, to make up the balance after any federal grants and standard financial aid packages - with nearly a hundred public and private colleges. Additionally, Say Yes uses private donations to help with some fees and housing at state schools.
And while that's a good thing for students, it makes Chris Walsh's job a logistical nightmare. Walsh left his job as SU's dean of financial aid to lead the tuition program at Say Yes.
"You have over a thousand students going to 68 different colleges," Walsh says, ticking off just one of the variables. "And you're issuing different disbursements for all those colleges to all those students."
But Walsh says that hassle is a means to an end: sending the message to kids and families that higher education is something they can plan to do, and enacting what he calls a "cultural" shift.
Plus, it's not like he went into this with his eyes closed.
"I think we went into this knowing it would be a challenge - and I think it has been successful," says Walsh.
Filling in the gaps
But as Deka has observed about her own college readiness, there's more to going to college than just getting together the money.
That's what the second phase of the collaboration between Say Yes and the Syracuse school district is meant to address. This year, Say Yes is phasing in programs in the last of the district's elementary schools to supplement the cash-strapped district, including counseling and legal aid clinics for families dealing with issues like eviction, SAT preparation, and health education.
"The goal of Say Yes begins with the end in mind and that is college completion," says the district's new superintendent, Sharon Contreras. "Say Yes helps us bring all those resources together to make sure college completion actually happens."
But once those resources are marshaled by Say Yes, it's up to the district to figure out a way to fund the in-school programs over the long term.
Next up for Say Yes to Education is adding another city to its portfolio of district-wide assistance, by 2013. Buffalo and Rochester have both applied.
The next Say Yes city should be getting underway with its program just as Deka Dancil is getting ready to graduate - with a much lower debt burden than that of many students who pursue higher education.
Deka will also have had the benefit of attending a private university, instead of being forced to look to a more cost-effective alternative like community college. She says for her, that wasn't really an option.
"Right now I just don't think I could have [done] that," she reflects. "Because my potential is much bigger than that."