When 18-year-old Cheyenne Ketter-Franklin begins classes at the University at Buffalo next week, she will be spared at least one anxiety — the prospect of being saddled with a mountain of higher-education debt.
An innovative scholarship program that offers up to full tuition to any Buffalo public or charter school graduate accepted to college is taking away that worry for Ketter-Franklin and hundreds of other students, and giving parents a powerful incentive to stay.
In Syracuse and Buffalo, the Say Yes to Education program lets eligible high school graduates go to any of the colleges and universities in the State University of New York and City University of New York systems, vocational schools, or participating private institutions that include Notre Dame, Harvard and Duke.
Say Yes has chapters in Buffalo, Syracuse, Philadelphia, Hartford, Conn., and New York City's Harlem neighborhood, each offering varying degrees of academic, social, and financial supports intended to increase high school and college graduation rates. The tuition scholarships, which provide gap funding for tuition not covered by federal or state aid or other scholarships, are funded locally through donations from individuals, businesses and philanthropic groups.
Say Yes got a hoped-for plug from President Barack Obama on Thursday when he spoke about college affordability during a stop at the Buffalo campus. The president praised "the great work that's being done through a program called Say Yes, to make sure that no child in Buffalo has to miss out on college because they can't pay for it."
Buffalo's fledgling Say Yes program already had been on the US Department of Education's radar when Obama's visit to the city was announced, said Executive Director David Rust, who answered department questions about it a few months ago. Once the visit was confirmed, Rust secured an invitation to meet with Obama.
"We're removing the most significant barrier, which is financial, in a region that's struggled for decades now," Rust said. "And that's right in line with what he's talking about, and that's affordable college for all."
Obama's visit to Buffalo was the first in a two-day bus tour through upstate New York and Pennsylvania to push for a new government rating system for colleges that would judge schools on affordability and performance and ultimately determine how federal financial aid is distributed.
"I'm relieved, for starters," Ketter-Franklin said, especially as she watches her sister Kathyran struggle under $40,000 worth of debt after graduating from Canisius College in May, before Say Yes began in Buffalo with the class of 2013.
"College is stressful enough on its own," she said. "Knowing that you're going to have this money, that it's guaranteed and doesn't have to be another thing to worry about, definitely makes looking forward to college and enjoying the college life a lot easier."
After Buffalo, the president headed to Henninger High School in Syracuse. On Friday, he plans to answer questions at a town hall-style event at SUNY Binghamton before a stop at Lackawanna College in Scranton, Pa, where he was to be joined by Vice President Joe Biden.