Say Yes Guilford has been answering a lot of questions this week, but many people who previously expected to benefit from that program haven’t liked the answers they’ve been hearing.

Say Yes Guilford Communications Director Donnie Turlington and Scholarship Board Chairman Chuck Cornelio were the bearers of bad news for many area families at a Thursday, March 30 press conference where the two presented the new criteria that limits which students will get aid from the highly touted scholarship program.

When the Say Yes Guilford initiative was established in Guilford County two years ago, it promised to pay the “last dollar” education costs for families regardless of income level.   That is, it would pay the tuition costs for students after all grants and loans were exhausted.

The national Say Yes to Education program – started by billionaire George Weiss in Philadelphia to help 112 inner-city students pay for their college educations – now has chapters in three northeastern cities and in Guilford County, the program’s newest chapter.

In its first year in effect, the 2016-2017 school year, Say Yes Guilford projected that the Guilford County program would spend about $900,000. However, at the March 30 press conference, Cornelio announced the actual cost came to just under $6 million – which, he said, was the reason Say Yes Guilford was forced to cut back the scope of the program in Guilford County for the 2017-2018 school year.

Before the press conference, the financial disparity for the program was widely reported, but what wasn’t known was the extent to which Say Yes Guilford would limit scholarships for Guilford County students. In the weeks leading up the press conference, Say Yes staff was crunching the numbers and exploring options, and, on March 30, the Say Yes Guilford Scholarship Board met at 2 p.m. at Advanced Home Care in High Point, where the group discussed two alternatives that were presented by staff. That private meeting was followed at 4:30 p.m. by a press conference at the Central Branch of the Greensboro Public Library after the Scholarship Board unanimously approved the new plan that Cornelio unveiled.

Before the announcement, the question was whether Say Yes Guilford would limit its payouts by means testing the scholarships, increasing the requirement for years a student would have to be in Guilford County Schools or by limiting the amount paid. The answer, it turned out, was (D) All of the above.

Cornelio announced a complex payout system depending on several factors, such as length of time in Guilford County Schools, family income and type of college attended. Here are some examples for students attending public colleges in North Carolina under the new more restrictive criteria.

For the school year 2017-2018, students in families with an annual family income of $40,000 or less will receive 100 percent of the last-dollar tuition amounts, after financial aid – if those students have been enrolled in Guilford County Schools since the ninth grade. Those with an annual family income of between $40,001 and $75,000 will get up to $4,500 in Say Yes tuition assistance after other financial aid packages kick in – if those students have been enrolled in Guilford County Schools since the sixth grade. Eligible students with an annual family income of $75,001-$100,000 will get up to $2,250 in tuition assistance if they’ve been enrolled in Guilford County Schools since the fourth grade.

Also, according to the new guidelines, any family with an annual income of more than $100,000 is no longer eligible for Say Yes tuition scholarship money.

The program will no longer use a sliding scale for payouts. Turlington wrote in an email, “The new model is built on 100 percent eligibility if the student meets the requisite criteria for their family income bracket, so there’s no percentage scale any longer. Instead, there are enrollment criteria and scholarship caps attached to each income bracket. The higher the family income, the longer a student has to be continuously enrolled in GCS.”

Turlington said after the meeting that Say Yes Guilford is confident that the math for the new payment model allows for a sustainable program. However, since the same group’s projections for this year were off by over 600 percent, it many be a while before many people have confidence in the new numbers.

Say Yes Guilford states that the new numbers only apply for the upcoming school year and may change again in the following year.

Cornelio said it’s possible Say Yes will adjust the program again in the future and the information released by the group states that the current policy may be in effect only for the 2017-2018 school year.

Cornelio said that, to that end, the Say Yes Scholarship Board will review policies, models and funding levels each year.

“If adjustments are needed, they will be announced to the classes,” he said.

At the press conference, an apologetic Cornelio said Say Yes Guilford understood the anxiety surrounding the changes. He said there was a profound understanding by the entire Scholarship Board that “many [Guilford County Schools] graduates and their families will have to identify new means to fund their college tuitions.”

He added that the new structure was chosen to soften the impact on as many students as possible, “particularly on those who have limited resources for college.”

“The board faced the reality that we can’t spend what we don’t have,” he told the dozen or so members of the media assembled in the Sternberger conference room of the Greensboro Central Library. Our challenge was, and continues to be, setting the stage for continued success in future years by seeking balance between expected program revenues and the annual payout for scholarships. The continued support we’re counting on from current and future donors will be needed for the revenue side of the equation, and the Scholarship Board will reevaluate the Say Yes scholarship eligibility policies every year to make sure the expenditure side of the balance is maintained.”

Turlington and other Say Yes staff now have a lot of work to do in the coming weeks: Say Yes has scheduled 12 information sessions at libraries, churches and schools across Guilford County to answer questions regarding the new policy and to let people know which students are eligible and which ones are not.

Now that the bad news is out, Say Yes officials are being much more open about other questions that have been flying around since early March when the public became aware there would be cuts in the program.

For instance, Turlington confirmed that the national Say Yes to Education organization did kick in some money to help cover current scholarships recently, even though that wasn’t initially part of the plan.

The group also released some information about those who benefited from the program in the 2016-2017 school year. Of 5,500 graduates of Guilford County Schools, 3,644 enrolled in colleges and universities. Of those, 2,493 received Say Yes money.

A large majority of those – 2,045 – attended four-year public colleges and universities, while 448 attended two-year colleges. Of the “Say Yes scholars” – as the recipients are known – 131 attended private colleges and universities that participate in the program, and 28 of those students attended out-of-state private schools.

Of the students receiving Say Yes benefits this school year, 55 percent were female and 45 percent male; 48 percent were white, 32 percent black, 6 percent Hispanic or Latino and 14 percent were “other” or didn’t specify a race.

The most popular schools for those using the Say Yes program were, in order, Guilford Technical Community College, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Appalachian State University. The most popular private colleges for those benefiting from the Say Yes program were Greensboro College, Guilford College, High Point University, Bennett College and Salem College.

At the press conference, Cornelio said the Scholarship Board had some tough choices to make but felt this was the right path forward.

“This is a result we would have liked to have avoided,” he said, adding, “We are confident we arrived at the best possible solution to a situation where quite frankly there are no attractive alternatives.”

He encouraged anyone with questions to visit the Say Yes website, Facebook page or to call or email with questions.

He said Say Yes Guilford would need about $450 million to have a scholarship program that paid all last dollar tuition costs for everyone. That estimate was down about $100 million from the one Say Yes Guilford gave out a few weeks ago but it is still much higher than the $70 million mark Say Yes originally projected – a major mistake that is yet to be fully explained.

Cornelio did give some additional facts.

“We didn’t have a lot of data about Guilford kids that went to college so we started with the national model, from Say Yes, and tried to apply some assumptions about what we thought we knew,” Cornelio said.

“I would say the big effective difference between the model and what actually happened was that a lot of kids went to school in comparison to the model,” Cornelio said. “More kids in comparison with the model received a lot more tuition from us. We paid out about four times per student the average we thought we would pay out and that’s where you see the difference. The $6 million is far more cash than we can pay out every year.”

In order to do that, Say Yes Guilford would need an endowment in the hundreds of millions, which is a far cry from what it currently has.

The group has $42 million in pledges and commitments, $9.2 of which is in the bank for the endowment.

The news of the new criteria did not sit well with many people whose benefits were cut or removed. Of 75 comments posted on Facebook about the new criteria, most were highly negative ones from those who will be cut out from or get reduced benefits from the program under the new rules.

Most were like the post of Gary Wade, who wrote: “I have THREE freshmen at UNCG on this program that was ‘Promised’ and just learned ‘Say Yes’ is yanking the rug out from under us in mid-stream. We revamped all our finances to include this promise. They are out of funds before the first year ends. THREE expenses of THREE KIDS and they told us we ‘make too much money under the new rules’ to qualify. When you deduct all expenses for 3 full time freshmen students, what’s left over isn’t “very much” money! Great….. All the funds will now go to low-income families only. More entitlements!!! More penalization to people who really work extra hard to make ends meet!!”

There were a few posts from those who were sympathetic. Christi Shropshire, for instance, posted, “I have benefited for one year and I am thankful for every cent! I now do not qualify. I wish things were different but I’m not at all angry.”

After the March 30 press conference, Turlington said it was his understanding that about $1.2 million in Say Yes national funds went to pay off the unexpected costs of the current year for Say Yes Guilford.   Even that extra $1.2 million wouldn’t cover the gap between the group’s projected first-year payout of $900,000 and the $6 million Say Yes Guilford actually needed. It is not clear where the remainder of the money came from.

When Turlington was asked if the money from the national organization was a gift or a loan, he responded, “Some of the language is still going back and forth.”

Turlington also said that no one in the organization was pointing fingers at one another and said the decision process that got the program to this point was a “collective effort” in which local and national Say Yes officials, along with “scholarship experts,” created the now defunct model on the best available data.

“It’s just been one of those things where everybody was at the table at the same time,” Turlington said.

He said a “study committee” made up of Scholarship Board members had then come up with the new model and recommended two potential models going forward to the Scholarship Board.

When Turlington was asked about the size of the endowment that Say Yes Guilford would now shoot for, he said that question was still undecided. Until now, the goal has been to get $70 million and the group has “pledges and commitments” for nearly $42 million. But, clearly, $70 million isn’t anywhere near enough money to establish the program as originally conceived. Turlington said he does not know what the new goal will be.

“They haven’t discussed really what the mark is,” he said, “but I think its safe to say that $70 million is not going to be the mark.”