Vinh Ho always knew he was going to college. Even though English wasn't his first language, even though his mom has only a grade-school education, and even though he grew up in a city where 51 percent of teenagers drop out of high school, Ho worked hard enough and was smart enough to earn a place at the University at Pennsylvania.
His hometown of Syracuse, N.Y., wants to instill that kind of academic ambition in every student. That's no easy task for the faded industrial city, in which more inner-city kids drop out of high school than make it to college graduation. But since 2008, a citywide collaboration called Say Yes Syracuse has promised full-tuition college scholarships to every graduate of the Syracuse City School District, and has ramped up support services for students starting in kindergarten.
In a county that is 81 percent white, 74 percent of SCSD students are nonwhite. Eighty percent of children in SCSD schools are low-income, and many, like Ho, are first-generation Americans. Most inner-city kids are African-American, but the city—like so many across America as demographics shift—has also seen rapid growth in the number of Hispanics.
Although many Syracuse kids are eligible for significant state and federal financial aid, going to college has never been a community norm. That has become a big problem. Fifty years ago, it was possible for a young person without much education to earn a good living in upstate New York. Today, employers statewide want to see college credentials—and manufacturers that remain in the area are demanding applicants with a higher skill set. When President Obama visited Syracuse earlier this summer, he called the city's college-going focus critical to its future.
Cities like Pittsburgh and Kalamazoo, Mich., have also made scholarship promises, but Syracuse's approach—designed by nonprofit Say Yes to Education—goes further. "In our view, it really plays to the full complexity of the issues—of what students need, and what it really means to create the kind of opportunity for kids in an urban district that their suburban peers get," says Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University.
Free tuition won't be much help if students aren't prepared for college. In 2011, just 13 percent of SCSD students scored high enough on state tests to be considered college-ready, and less than a third of students in grades three through eight met state proficiency standards, according to SCSD. Eighty-five percent of young people incarcerated in Onondaga County in 2010-11 came from the city schools.
The Say Yes Tuition Scholarship takes away one barrier to student success by elevating college as a goal. The scholarship covers remaining tuition, after need-based government support, and institutional aid for all Syracuse students admitted to New York state institutions. Cooper Union, based in New York City, and Syracuse University offer all SCSD students a full ride. Students whose families earn less than $75,000 per year are guaranteed full tuition at 54 private universities that have allied with Say Yes, including Penn, where Ho is a junior and an urban-studies major. Since the fall of 2009, over $11 million in scholarships has been awarded to more than 2,000 SCSD graduates.
In May, the first class of 47 Syracuse Say Yes graduates walked away from SU without any student loans and a diploma with a ticket price of $140,000 in tuition and fees. More than 150 are now enrolled at the campus on the hill overlooking their hometown.
Across Syracuse, stakeholders have pulled together to support students academically and help needy families access social services. SU offers free SAT tutoring, for example. Say Yes to Education and Onondaga Community College run a precollege summer orientation for high school graduates. And a grant from the Wallace Foundation helped Say Yes extend the school day for kids from kindergarten through fifth grade.