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Buffalo Public School students to receive free college tuition

Daniel Robison
Buffalo Public School students celebrate after city and local leaders announced free college tuition for high school graduates.

For the next two decades, Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) students will receive free college tuition.

Buffalo became only the second city in the country Tuesday (after Syracuse) to issue that promise, through the Say Yes to Education Foundation.

But it’s a pledge that hinges on the community’s ability to find $85 million to pay for it.

So far, $15 million has been raised quietly over the past 10 months, thanks to the generosity of wealthy locals and Say Yes.

“The difference between $15 and $100 million is going to have to come from the residents to ensure that this just doesn’t last five years or 10 years, but will turn around Buffalo forever,” says George Weiss, Say Yes founder. 

Rhetoric at Tuesday’s rowdy announcement showed city leaders envisioning the initiative as no less than the catalyst for Buffalo’s renaissance.

“Now I can go for free”

BPS high school junior Robyn Fawn says arrived for class Tuesday morning thinking about winter break, not college.

“I heard first period that there was going to be an assembly and I didn’t really know what it was about until we got here,” she says.

She and hundreds of her classmates at Buffalo Visual and Performing Arts School, located on the city’s poverty-stricken East Side, gathered together in the building’s auditorium and were told, time and again, by at least a dozen speakers, they could count on a free college education.

“Before I was probably going to go to college but it was going to suck my mom dry,” Fawn says. “Now I can go for free ... I know a lot of people who weren’t going to go to college, but now that it’s free they’ll probably go.”

There is fine print though, that wasn’t mentioned at the highly theatrical announcement.

To qualify for partial tuition coverage, students must live in Buffalo, attend a BPS school for at least four years and graduate in or after June 2013.

The only students who will receive 100 percent of the benefit are those who have attended a BPS school since kindergarten. Those who enter in ninth grade will see 65 percent of their tuition covered. And this year’s seniors are out of luck.

But for a school system that graduates fewer than half its students, there’s certainly plenty of room for the program to be effective.

In the meantime, the community’s deepest pockets will be subjected to pleas for donations. One of the organizers of the announcement, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Western New York CEO Alphonso O’Neil-White, says he has no doubt the $100 million goal can be met.

“Fifty million dollars was raised to restore the Darwin Martin House in a relatively short period of time. So if they can do that there, we know we can do what we need to do here,” says O’Neil-White. “This is not a flavor of the month program. It’s not a project. It’s a commitment to a journey.”

In its four years as the pilot city for a similar free tuition program, Syracuse has seen its dropout rate reduced by 44 percent. Real estate values have gone up around its schools.

“You will get a job”

But even if Buffalo is infused with college-educated locals a few years from now, there’s the question of where they’ll find jobs.

“Most people will tell you that there are jobs out there but there’s not a workforce trained in order to get those jobs,” says Bob Gioia, an organizer for the free tuition program and CEO of the Oshei Foundation. “It’s about educating folks and making sure they are prepared for whatever career they’re looking for. We would say to all of these kids, ‘If you go to college and you graduate, you will get a job’.”

Representatives from Say Yes to Education see the program as transformational for Buffalo. The foundation chose the nation’s third-poorest city from a host of applicants. The idea is that removing financial barriers to education will go farther in a city where more than half of African-American males are unemployed, and even fewer have a high school diploma.

The tuition promise will also encourage people to move into Buffalo and send their children to its public schools, thus boosting both the economy and education system, says Gioia.

“This is also an economic driver to live in the city, engage in the city, and go to our public school system,” he says. “It’s shown that it works in other communities, that the downward trend of people leaving the city is reversed and we actually have people coming into the city.”

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