By Brian Tumulty
Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - Cornell University and Dartmouth College are among five colleges that will offer free tuition, room and board beginning in September 2014 to incoming freshmen participating in the "Say Yes to Education" program.
The commitment announced Wednesday applies to an estimated 65,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade in the Buffalo and Syracuse city school districts as well as to individual schools in Harlem, Philadelphia and Hartford, Conn. participating in the program.
Another six colleges - including Princeton University and Hamilton College near Utica - said they will participate by providing free tuition, but without a guarantee to cover room and board.
Students must meet the colleges' academic requirements for admission and declare taxable income of $75,000 or less at some private colleges.
"The kids still have to work hard and get in, but the financial barrier is eliminated because of the generosity of these higher education institutions,'' Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of the Say Yes to Education Foundation, said at a Washington news conference.
Say Yes is available to students who go to Buffalo schools and live in the city. To get a full ride at a SUNY or CUNY school, Buffalo students needs to stay in the district from Kindergarten to the 12th grade. To get 80 percent of tuition taken care of, the student needs to enter into the district in the 4th, 5th or 6th grades and graduate. To get 65 percent of tuition paid for, the student needs to come to the district in the 7th, 8th or 9th grades and graduate.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Dartmouth alumna, lobbied Cornell and Dartmouth to participate in the program. She joined Say Yes officials and several college administrators at Wednesday's news conference.
"Cornell is doing it now because we've looked into the Say Yes program,'' said Barbara Knuth, Cornell's vice provost and dean of the graduate school. "We have quite a lot of confidence that the programs they are doing through K-12 communities in Syracuse and Buffalo are extremely strong and situating their students to aspire to go to college. And we want to contribute to that.''
Cornell will not set a quota on how many Say Yes students are admitted annually, Knuth said, but the number will be limited because the entire freshman class totals only 3,200.
The announcement increases to 54 the number of private colleges participating in the Say Yes program. Thirty-five of the colleges are located in New York, including New York University, Columbia and Fordham in New York City and the University of Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology in western New York.
In addition, Say Yes students are guaranteed free tuition at all 64 campuses of the State University of New York system.
The University of Rochester recently saw its first four Say Yes students graduate with bachelor's degrees, according to Jonathan Burdick, dean of admissions and financial aid.
"Syracuse has been the most productive group for us, but we are happy to see them expand everywhere,'' Burdick said.
He noted that, apart from the Say Yes program, the University of Rochester offers similar free tuition to students in families with incomes under $137,000 who graduate from Rochester city schools.
For Syracuse University, family incomes need to be below $100,000 and for families interested in Harvard University, family incomes need to be below $200,000.
George Weiss started the program in 1987 with one school in Philadelphia. His inspiration for the program came when he was in his 20s and invited to lunch former inner-city gang members whom he had befriended while an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania.
All 12 had graduated from high school.
"I got emotional and started really tearing up and I said, 'I'm pretty proud of you for staying in school and graduating,''' he recalled. "One of them turned around to me and said, 'George, we couldn't look you in the eye if we dropped out.' I just made a silent pact with God. If He ever gave me the financial wherewithal, at some point I'd turn around and do something educationally. It would be hands-on. So that's the genesis.''
Weiss made his fortune as a money manager and continues to help finance the program, although it now has other benefactors, including private foundations.
Weiss said his next goal is to expand outside of the Northeast and make it national.
"I'd love to have 10 cities under the Say Yes umbrella,'' he said. "Say Yes works and it's a proven model. As a businessman we keep tweaking it and making it a better and better model.''
More information, including details on how to donate can be found at: Say Yes to Education