Courtesy of Say Yes to Education.
Courtesy of Say Yes to Education

Mayor Greg Fischer and local education leaders are weighing an estimated $100 million participation in a scholarship fund to provide tuition-free college options to all local high school graduates — forever.

Local leaders said the effort could improve the local economy and transform the education system.

What share of the money would come from city and public school coffers was not immediately clear. Even if community leaders signal their willingness to participate, the project’s fate hinges upon approval of the local proposal by Say Yes to Education, a New York City-based foundation that would provide $15 million to support the effort.

The city said Say Yes has requested that Louisville “prepare a proposal this fall.” A Say Yes spokesman said that the organization hopes to announce its next partner community within the next year.

Fischer has met with leaders from Jefferson County Public Schools, the Jefferson County Teachers Association and 55,000 Degrees to discuss the proposal.

The mayor’s office could not be reached Tuesday afternoon to say how much of the $100 million the city would expect to contribute.

Mary Gwen Wheeler
Mary Gwen Wheeler

Mary Gwen Wheeler, executive director for 55,000 degrees, which aims to increase the number of local college graduates, said Louisville’s participation in Say Yes would be “culture-changing.”

Once established, the scholarship fund would pay the tuition for all local high school graduates who are heading to public universities, and some would get to attend any of the 90 private colleges and universities with which Say Yes has partnerships.

Wheeler said about two-thirds of local high school grads attend college, and some drop out before graduation, often for fiscal reasons. Removing the cost barrier would assure that more people go to college and more students remain in college to graduate, she said.

In Buffalo, N.Y., the share of high school grads who attended college jumped by 10 percentage points after it partnered with Say Yes, Wheeler said.

People with college diplomas, on average, earn more than people without post-secondary education and are more likely to be employed. Businesses across the country, including in Louisville, have complained they are struggling to find qualified employees for open job postings to the point that it has hampered economic growth.

Local leaders are in the early stages of discussing the partnership with Say Yes, Wheeler said, which means the exact amount of money that needs to be raised for the endowed scholarship fund has yet to be determined. She said the community should know more within the next two weeks. The Jefferson County Board of Education received a presentation of the proposed partnership Tuesday afternoon.

Wheeler said setting up the fund, raising the money and implementing the needed infrastructure could take about a year.

Fischer could not be reached Tuesday afternoon to say exactly what the partnership would entail. Leaders hope to obtain some of the funds from foundations and the private sector. Say Yes could not immediately say what share of the total investments in other cities came from public sources.

In a press release, Fischer said the opportunity could prove “transformational … and it would shift the landscape of economic development for decades to come.”

“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 mayor said.

JCPS Superintendent Donna Hargens described Say Yes as a “tremendous opportunity for Louisville.”

Say Yes spokesman Jacques Steinberg told IL via email that Louisville “is one of several communities that have received a request for proposal from Say Yes — as it seeks to identify the sites for its fourth (and perhaps fifth) community-wide chapters.”

Which communities get chosen depends on factors including “the strength of local leadership; the openness of local partners to working together; the capacity for local fundraising to support college and other post-secondary scholarships, and the commitment of the local school district to the goal of its students graduating high school – and doing so college-ready.”

Steinberg also said that given the complexity of the issues the effort will address, the community should expect that it will take years before it sees a measurable impact.

Say Yes to Education logoAccording to its website, Say Yes is a nonprofit that “revitalizes communities by helping them give every public high school graduate access to college or other post-secondary scholarships.”

The organization says that beyond the $15 million, it provides communities with “comprehensive strategy and technical support including fiscal audits and expert consulting.”

Steinberg said that the organization and its partners also “ensure that students and their families have the resources outside the classroom – tutoring; after-school and summer programs; medical care; counseling and legal help – to clear the path to academic achievement.”

The foundation was founded in 1987 by George Weiss, a money manager who “promised to prepare 112 Philadelphia sixth graders for college and to pay their college tuition if they graduated high school.”

The foundation said that with its support, more than 5,000 students have gone to college.

Louisville would be the fourth Say Yes community, after Guilford County, N.C., Buffalo, N.Y., and Syracuse, N.Y. The foundation said that in Syracuse, it “provides services and scholarships to nearly 20,000 public school students and their families.”

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.