Free college tuition program expands to North Carolina

Students can attend two- and four-year public colleges and universities in North Carolina tuition-free
By: | Issue: February, 2016
January 26, 2016

Guilford County Schools in North Carolina raised $35 million last year to help fund every high school student’s college education in full.

The effort is part of the district’s recent partnership with Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit that also works communitywide in Syracuse and Buffalo, New York, to provide scholarships and social services.

Say Yes to Education, founded in 1987, creates and helps fund wraparound care for K12 students with the goal of getting more underserved students to graduate high school and college.

It partners with school administrators to implement extended class time, mentoring, tutoring and psychological services in schools. Local health care and legal assistance firms also help provide free services for families.

Starting with the class of 2016, Guilford County’s 72,000 students can attend two- and four-year public colleges and universities in North Carolina tuition-free, with “last dollar scholarships.” Such awards fill a gap: If a student receives financial aid that does not cover the full tuition, the scholarship will fund the rest.

“We’re really trying to create a college-going culture, and make that aspiration a reality for more families,” says Nora Carr, Guilford County Schools chief of staff. Last year’s graduation rate was an all-time high of 89 percent, thanks in part to renewed efforts on dropout prevention, early dual enrollment opportunities and a program that allows students to complete their degrees while working full time.

Still, more than 1,000 graduates did not enroll in college last year, Carr adds.

The district covers a 650-square-mile area that includes the cities of Greensboro and High Point, and a range of urban, suburban and rural neighborhoods. It is also a longtime refugee resettlement area, with students in the district speaking 99 languages and dialects, including Indian, Nepali, Spanish and Vietnamese.

“This gets kids and families thinking a different way about education early on, and it’s very powerful in terms of raising the level of expectations,” Carr says.

Creating a framework

Say Yes will invest $15 million in seed funding for wraparound services in Guilford County, while the district will decide which are needed. The nonprofit also invests in technology, and creates long-term financial plans to sustain the work.

While Say Yes creates the scholarship framework, it is up to the community to raise the money. The district superintendent and board chair have actively raised private funding, as have other local business and community leaders, Carr says.

Fundraising efforts thus far have focused on major gifts from two community foundations. Private community members and family foundations pledged other major gifts, she adds. The goal is to raise $70 million for the endowment fund.

“Our community has never raised this kind of money before,” Carr says. The area struggled economically even before the recession, and the district has one of the lowest per-pupil funding rates in the nation. “For a community like ours to pull this together is pretty remarkable. If we can do it, others can too.”