The huge financial fail of Say Yes Guilford – a program established to help Guilford County families pay college tuition for high school graduates – has sent a giant shockwave through the community and left confusion, questions, finger-pointing, potential lawsuits and hostility in its wake.
The program was presented to the community in 2015 as a “win-win” initiative: an endowment-based scholarship program that would pay the “last dollars” of the cost of college after other financial grants and loans were exhausted.
But on Thursday, March 12, hours after the publication of a Rhino Times article on the large shortfall that would not allow the organization to continue operating as promised, Say Yes sent an email notification to Guilford County school officials and posted a web announcement for disappointed parents and community contributors that stated that the Say Yes Guilford program was financially unsustainable.
By Thursday evening, Say Yes had posted an update on its web page and its Facebook page to that effect.
“Say Yes Guilford is considering making changes to the requirements for scholarships to North Carolina public colleges and universities,” the statement read.
The group had projected about $900,000 in payouts needed for the first year of operation – the 2016-2017 school year – but, instead, the actual cost of the first year totaled $6.1 million, nearly seven times more than expected.
That also meant that, instead of an expected needed endowment of $70 million, the program required about $550 million. So far, Say Yes has $42 million in pledges and commitments but only a part of that $42 million in hand. Say Yes will not say how much money it has in its possession and how much money has only been promised.
Because of the giant shortfall, Say Yes announced it would be forced to make changes to the program and limit the scholarship offerings in some way. One way the program is expected to do that is by means testing families and offering the program only to needy ones rather than those at all income levels as was hyped for the last two years.
“In communities that partner with Say Yes to Education, the independent local Scholarship Board approves the distribution of Say Yes scholarships, and conducts annual reviews of its policies and award formulas,” the Say Yes statement reads. “In carefully reviewing its scholarship model and policies, the Say Yes Guilford Scholarship Board is considering revisions to the income qualifications for the scholarships. While local and national leaders worked in good faith to create a scholarship program in the fall of 2015 that would be available to the class of 2016, the Scholarship Board’s review has determined that the current formulas for scholarship awards are not sustainable. The experience of our first year in Guilford has far exceeded our expectations, as more than 2,000 recent Guilford County Schools graduates went off to colleges and other postsecondary programs with scholarships provided by, or arranged through, Say Yes Guilford. But to preserve the economic viability of the program, it is apparent that changes will be necessary.”
Though some of the payments promised for students in the program for the 2017 spring semester have not been paid out yet, Say Yes state, “Payments for the spring semester are still being processed and students in the class of 2016 currently enrolled in college will continue to have their 2016-17 payments submitted. There will be no change in funding for this current school year.”
It is good news for those families in the first year of the program that they will at least get the funding they were expecting for the current year. However, with $5.2 million more costs than anticipated in the first year, it’s not clear where that money is coming from. Say Yes has been very secretive about its financial situation, and, presumably, most of the money donated to the nonprofit organization is legally committed to funding the endowment and therefore can’t be used to pay costs for the first-year of the program.
Also, while the college freshmen enrolled in the Say Yes program will see aid from Say Yes for the 2017 spring semester, that may be the last money they see. The organization has announced that students will “not be grandfathered into” the program and details about how the coming changes to Say Yes will affect payment for current students are still being worked out.
Many students are right now making their college decisions and financial arrangements for the 2017 school year or have made them already.
The news of what will need to be radical changes to the program has left many parents and their kids who were counting on Say Yes very angry.
Many students based their decision of where to attend college on the promise of Say Yes money for that institution. In some cases they chose higher-priced schools than they could have afforded without Say Yes funding, and they may have, for instance, chosen an in-state school largely or only because they had the promise that Say Yes would help cover the cost of their education while there. Some students are very upset because they gave up scholarships to out-of-state colleges to go to one of the in-state schools that has an agreement with Say Yes.
If the parents and students in those situations had known the money wasn’t going to be available for the entire college career of that student, they might have chosen a different college. Also, in some cases, families who were planning to move to another county or state a year and a half ago have remained in Guilford County because of the promise of Say Yes money years down the line. In other cases, the highly touted Say Yes program was one of the main reasons families chose to move to Guilford County.
As soon as Say Yes announced the changes, there was a string of angry posts on the Say Yes organization’s Facebook page, and most of those people clicked the “angry” emoji to accompany their post.
A statement by Marian Steele was typical: “So basically it’s a BS program,” that post read. “It was one of the few ways my family could benefit as we earn too much for qualifying for need based financial aid yet we have nowhere near enough to pay out of pocket. Thanks a lot for nothing! And WHY is this not being loudly advertised so that kids don’t have false hope?!?!? Super angry [about] this. If you are going to change the program you have the OBLIGATION to let people know!!!!!!!”
Another expectant beneficiary of the program, Bonnie Thyer, posted, “Seniors needed to know this information last fall when applying to colleges! They have made decisions based on the promises of this program. For most it is too late to change or to apply to other colleges. Very disappointing!!”
But it wasn’t just on Facebook where emotions ran high. One high-ranking Guilford County Schools official who asked not to be named said: “I am appalled that that organization would come in here and do that to our students. In the worst case, I would hope they could continue to fund the education of those in college now.”
“How in the world could you miss it by that much?” the school official continued. “If I were a wealthy benefactor and you had come to me and said that that burden would be $500 million, I would say, ‘Forget it – you will never raise that much.”
Among the many questions now filling the air are whether lawsuits might be filed by those affected families, as well as questions as to whether contributors who have promised money to Say Yes will be obligated to fulfill those pledges now that the program will be different from the one they initially agreed to fund.
Say Yes currently has $42 million in pledges and commitments; however, that money was pledged to an organization committed to providing last-dollar funding to families of all income levels, and once Say Yes announces its new model at the end of the month, it will be a different program than the one that has secured the $42 million in commitments over the last two years.
Paul Lessard, the founder and president of the High Point Community Foundation, said publicly this week that it is possible the new version of Say Yes will attract more money because of the change. Lessard said some people and businesses were reluctant to give money to a program that helped middle class and well off people.
“I think we didn’t get some money because they saw the universality of it initially, so I’m very optimistic that I think this may bring in more gifts,” he said.
Others, however, argue that many donors never would have given money in the first place if the actual numbers had been known, and now, of course, there is a distinctly less positive air to Say Yes than there was when it was a feel-good plan for everyone in the community with no highly negative baggage.
Also, for some elected officials who voted to show support for the program, one of the big selling points that helped get everyone on board is that it benefited the middle class as well as the needy. That was a key factor when the program was presented to the community in 2015, and Say Yes wouldn’t have garnered the same widespread support, notoriety and enthusiasm if it were just another one of many programs established to help the poor.
Economic development officials, for instance, liked the fact that Say Yes would draw people to Guilford County from across the economic spectrum – not just the needy – and many Guilford County commissioners appreciated that it was a program that would, for a change, help middle class families and even those who are very well off. There are already countless federal, state and nonprofit programs that help pay college costs for low-income families, but one of the very appealing things about Say Yes for many was that it applied to those with low and high incomes.
One Facebook poster, Des Baker, stated: “How can your program which was touted by our former superintendent and our current superintendent as the best thing to happen to our students all of the sudden change course and fund students that are the ‘most in need?’ You do realize that the working class parents are the ones who will suffer, low-income students will already be receiving the most financial aid. What about the parents and students who make too much to receive aid but don’t make enough to pay for the $17000 plus it now costs to attend state school? Thanks Say Yes, for essentially Saying No to my child.”
Back in August, Skip Moore, the former president of the Weaver Foundation, spoke on the major effect the program would have on bringing people and businesses to the area.
“This is as much an economic development program as it is an education program,” Moore told the Guilford County commissioners at that time.
Under new guidelines, the program is not expected to provide that boost to the local economy.
Say Yes is now pointing out in released statements that it never promised not to change: “On the scholarship page of the Say Yes Guilford website, the partnership is careful to note that the guidelines listed represent ‘a working policy’ and that ‘the Scholarship Board will continue to meet to refine policy.’”
That may be in the fine print, but the program was unequivocally sold to the community as a benefit to families of all income levels. In September 2015, former Superintendent of Guilford County School’s Mo Green and wealthy Say Yes founder George Weiss told a packed gymnasium at Ragsdale High School – amidst a sea of cheering kids waiving pom-poms and balloons with confetti falling from above – that the program was there to benefit all of the kids in the gym and in the Guilford County school system.
Say Yes has stated that the organization will release more data and announce the new guidelines by the end of March. For now, there are a lot of questions hanging in the air. Among those are how many students have been funded and how much money has been paid out and who will be granted access to the program for the 2017-2018 school year.
The group may also provide more detail on how this happened. Here’s the current official answer from Say Yes: “While local and national leaders worked in good faith to create a scholarship program in the fall of 2015 that would be available to the class of 2016, the Scholarship Board’s review has determined that the current formulas for scholarship awards are not sustainable. The experience of our first year in Guilford has far exceeded our expectations, as more than 2,000 recent Guilford County Schools graduates went off to colleges and other postsecondary programs with scholarships provided by, or arranged through, Say Yes Guilford. Unfortunately, the average dollar amount of those scholarships was much higher than originally projected.”
In this, the first year of the program, the 2016-2017 school year, Say Yes is so far only paying for one year – but the program is designed to fund four years of college for a student – so the actual cost, if the full program were implemented would be something close to $6.1 million times four – $24.4 million. (The actual number would vary according to number of dropouts, class size in the coming years, etc.) But $24.4 million would use up about half of the endowment, so the figures are even further off than they seem originally.