Louisville explores Say Yes opportunity, which could provide scholarships to all high school grads

July 25, 2016

Informational Meeting for Community Partner Programs on Monday

Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens will meet with community leaders this afternoon to learn more about “Say Yes to Education,”  a national foundation that could help Louisville become the next community to guarantee a tuition-free college option to all high school graduates.

“This could be transformational for Louisville’s next generation of leaders – and it would shift the landscape of economic development for decades to come,” Mayor Fischer said. “Imagine if every child in Louisville could go to college, without taking on debt! This would not only change the future of thousands of individual students, but help us grow and recruit more skill-based industries to our community.”

The national “Say Yes” organization has already helped three smaller communities in New York and North Carolina provide college scholarships for every graduating high school student. “Say Yes” has requested that Louisville prepare a proposal this fall. If selected, Louisville would be the fourth – and largest – “Say Yes” community.

Mayor Fischer, JCPS, the Jefferson County Teachers Association and 55,000 Degrees, the organization working to improve college graduation rates in Louisville, are working with others to jointly prepare the proposal and are hosting Monday’s informational meeting.

The meeting, which will be held at the Spalding University Center from 2 to 4 p.m. today (July 25), will be an opportunity for many community leaders, including those closely aligned with Louisville’s “Cradle to Career” initiatives, to hear first-hand from “Say Yes” representatives. (Cradle to Career is a collaborative effort to improve Louisville’s educational outcomes from those years before formal schooling all the way up to a successful career.)

“We all understand that today’s students will need post-secondary education to be able to thrive in the mid-21st Century economy,” Superintendent Hargens said. “’Say Yes’ provides a tremendous opportunity for Louisville to step up as a community and say we are committed to ensuring every one of our children has the opportunity to pursue the skills they need to make a living.”

“Say Yes” traces its roots to 1987, when money manager George Weiss promised 112 Philadelphia sixth-graders that he’d pay their college tuition if they graduated from high school. But beyond money, he offered support so that the students were ready to make the most of that opportunity.

That simple promise has grown into “Say Yes,” a national foundation that helps entire communities – like Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., and Guilford County, N.C.  – give every child in the community meaningful support toward college.  In May, the Buffalo News editorialized that “Say Yes” had “proved its worth” in that city, where the percentage of college-bound graduates is up 10 points in just four years. 

As with Weiss’ original promise, the “Say Yes” model includes improving support services so that every child is ready, upon high school graduation, to take advantage of the opportunity of a college education.

If Louisville is selected, “Say Yes” would provide $15 million to provide administrative support for wrap-around services. Louisville would need to demonstrate broad-based buy-in, support and collaboration. To fund the scholarships, for example, Louisville would need to raise money for an endowed scholarship fund – expected to be about $100 million.

“We believe this is a great opportunity for Louisville and that we are uniquely positioned to make the most of it,” said Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director of 55,000 Degrees. “Everything we’ve been doing over the past five years has led us to this point. We are a city that is collaborative about education and eager to find innovative ways to remove barriers to post-secondary education. ‘Say Yes’ has a proven track record of success.”