Say Yes to Education Guilford may soon have to start saying “no” to some students who were expecting to qualify for funding for the program that helps pay college tuition costs for students graduating from Guilford County Schools.

That’s because the first-year cost of the Say Yes Guilford program has turned out to be much higher than estimated – and that giant shortfall has Say Yes Guilford administrators scrambling to find ways to keep the program functioning in the same manner as promised when it gained backing from the community partners who have bought into Say Yes over the past two years.

Say Yes is a program that provides high school graduates with the “last dollars” needed to reach the total required payment for college tuition. In cases where students have grants or scholarships, the Say Yes money makes up any shortfall; and in cases where students have no money or scholarships available to them, Say Yes pays the entire tuition at a participating school.

The program began in 1987, when George Weiss, a successful money manager, promised about 100 sixth graders in Philadelphia that he would pay their way through college if they graduated from high school. Say Yes now has programs in Buffalo and Syracuse, New York, as well as in Guilford County.

The Say Yes model calls for the program to provide those last dollars to students who enroll at participating colleges – regardless of a family’s income or financial status. The program has done that so far for students who entered college in the fall semester of 2016 and spring semester of 2017. However, it has become clear that doing so is costing much more than was estimated, and now, behind the scenes, Say Yes Guilford is reevaluating its model and putting all options on the table.

Changes to the program could include means-testing applicants, increasing the length of time a student must be in Guilford County schools before qualifying, paying a percentage of the last dollars rather than 100 percent of those costs or limiting access to the program in other ways to bring down the quickly mounting costs.

The giant shortfall in the first year of the program has created a major sense of urgency among Say Yes Guilford officials.

The same Guilford County high school graduates who entered school this year will presumably need that same last-dollar funding for the next three years and there will be more students entering the program this fall as new high school graduates take advantage of the program.

One big problem with changing the model is that county businesses and community partners have donated millions based on the current model, and the Guilford County Board of Education, the Guilford County Board of Commissioners, the Greensboro City Council and others have agreed to participate based on the model in which all students have access to the program.

Any changes in the program have major implications. Some families have moved to Guilford County based on the promise of Say Yes funding for college while others have held off moves until their children have graduated from high school. Some upcoming graduates are making decisions about where they will attend school in the fall based on the promise of Say Yes Guilford funding.

The fact that Say Yes was presented as a service to families of all incomes was one appealing aspect of the program, since it meant it helped middle- and upper-class families as well as those who were less well off.

Say Yes Guilford recently announced that Mary Vigue, the group’s executive director, had stepped down and no reason was given for the move. Also, at a recent Guilford County school board meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 28, school board members pressed Say Yes Guilford for more complete information about the number of students currently being served by the program.

Say Yes Communications and Marketing Director Donnie Turlington did not shed any light on Vigue’s departure, but he said that Say Yes Guilford plans to offer more complete data to the school board and others by the end of March.

“We’re still crunching and tabulating the numbers,” Turlington said of students served and the amount of money paid so far.

He added that some of the spring semester costs are just now coming in.

“We’ve been hesitant to give a number that’s changing,” he said.

According to Turlington, Say Yes Guilford has raised $42 million in pledges and commitments and so far it has helped pay the tuition of over 2,000 students.

As for providing the service to everyone regardless of income or wealth, he said that Say Yes leadership has “a desire for it to be equitable and universal.”

When Turlington was asked about a potential change in the program he said, “The leadership always reserves the right to adjust the program.”

Chairman of the Guilford County Board of Commissioners Jeff Philips said he was surprised recently by the news that Vigue would no longer be director.

“There is some caution – obviously there’s concerns when you hear the Say Yes director depart in that way,” Phillips said. “Most of us don’t know why that took place.”

Phillips said that he’s maintaining “cautious optimism as we move into the future” with regard to the program.

Say Yes Guilford helps pay the tuition at colleges in the North Carolina university system, at state community colleges and at some private schools that partner with Say Yes Guilford.

The program also attempts to offer support for students while they are in the Guilford County school system by partnering with groups such as mental health providers, academic support groups, nutrition programs and others in the community to help create an environment in which students can learn. Many of those support programs have not yet been established.

The program currently does not pay the tuition cost of illegal aliens. There have been plans for Say Yes Guilford to cover charter schools in addition to public schools in the Guilford County system, but Turlington said that, as of yet, no charter schools have applied for the program.