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By A.J. Fabbri SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC News) — College education can be a double-edged sword. For most, a degree is a ticket to a solid career and a steady income. But the cost of that diploma can put too much of a financial burden on the families of college hopefuls.
Next year the total cost of attendance at Syracuse University next year will jump to over 70 thousand dollars. Rising tuition costs is a trend around the country. Those prices might deter some high school students from even thinking about stepping foot on campus.
Enter Say Yes to Education. The non-profit group is designed to cover the full tuition cost at colleges for students graduating from a Syracuse City School District high school. After state, federal and institution financial aid has been given to a student, Say Yes pays the remaining tuition balance.
The organization was founded in Philadelphia in 1987 by George Weiss. Along with Syracuse, Say Yes has established community chapters in Buffalo and Guilford County, North Carolina.
Say Yes is partnered with some of the best academic institutions in the country like Duke University, Stanford University, Syracuse University and all eight Ivy League Schools.
With high academic reputations come higher tuition costs.
“I would have never come to Syracuse, or any of my friends would have come to Syracuse, if it wasn’t for this program,” said Pat Burke, Corcoran High School alum and current Syracuse University freshman.
Burke is one of the nearly 3,000 students Say Yes has helped send to college since the fall of 2009. His younger brothers, twins, will be headed to school in a few years partaking in the same program.
Say Yes wants to change the culture in Syracuse regarding secondary education. Yes, college is expensive. But Chapter Executive Director Ahmeed Turner wants to open doors for students who would normally face dead ends after high school. Turner thinks Say Yes is steadily making a positive impact on the community.
“It’s definitely been a game changer,” Turner said, “It’s been, in my opinion, a shift in beliefs about college, a culture shift for students and families knowing that college is actually an option.”
Originally, the Say Yes national office funded the scholarship guarantees. However, through local philanthropic work and a $20 million endowment from the governor’s office, Say Yes is able to independently pay for applicant’s tuitions.
Yet, Say Yes still has work to do to change mindsets of local high schoolers. According to the New York State Department of Education, Syracuse high schools saw a dropout rate of 17 percent in 2017. Some are perturbed by a stigma surrounding the city schools, and opt for private schools instead. Those private schools in the area do not qualify for Say Yes scholarships.
“I went to city schools my whole life. I loved it. I had nothing but great experiences with great teachers,” Burke said, “There are some stuff that goes on in these schools that people get a little worried about. People say it’s not exactly safe sometimes. I’ve never felt that way. But that’s why people don’t take advantage of [Say Yes]. They all flock to private schools because they don’t think it is safe”
Dropout rates are a concern, but Turner emphasizes that students won’t suddenly change overnight. He stressed improvement in the long-term.
“As a community we knew there wasn’t gonna be a silver bullet and we wouldn’t see a stark jump. What we did find is that over time as we started to rethink how we wanted to support students, as we started to put things in place and offer them opportunities, that graduation rates started to trickle up.”
When Say Yes first partnered with the Syracuse community in 2008, graduation rates were below 50 percent. Now they top 60 percent, according to the New York State Education Department.
Still, with college tuition essentially paid for, one would think high school seniors would be more motivated to take advantage of the program.
It isn’t a lack of motivation from high school students, but sometimes social constrictions keeping seniors from going to college.
“A lot of kids that go to the city schools, they face a lot outside, with wherever they live, whatever they see,” said Say Yes benefactor and SU freshman Alivia Allers.
Allers is finishing up her first year in college, which saw her spend a semester abroad in Madrid. Upon returning, she said she is now leaning towards studying international relations.
For Turner, the college influence Allers received is exactly what Say Yes is looking to provide to Syracuse students.
“Ultimately we want them to graduate from college and come back to Syracuse and devote their gifts and talents to enriching the community. And ultimately we want education to be apart of the economic driver that revitalizes the Syracuse community as a whole,” said Turner.
Eventually, students who succeed and earn a college degree may return to Syracuse and help the city progress. But those like Burke, Allers and the thousands of other high schoolers want to extend their education would not be able to do so if it were not for Say Yes to Education.