Parents frustrated with changes to Say Yes scholarships

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Tiffany Nelms feels duped, wishing she had said no to Say Yes.

“They never mentioned subject to change or based on funding,” Nelms said. “We believed what they told us and we made decisions for the next four years of their life based on that promise so I would like for them to fulfill that promise.”

This comes after the nonprofit announced it was changing its scholarship requirements for students in Guilford County after miscalculations. Say Yes budgeted to pay for roughly $1 million in tuition for students graduating in the class of 2016, but ended up giving out $6 million.

“We sympathize with them because this is something that, Say Yes did not set out to create a scholarship program and then change it,” said Say Yes spokesman Donnie Turlington.

Nelms sent her daughter Amanda to East Carolina University because of the Say Yes promised to cover tuition in-state for five years after graduation or eight semesters. The family even turned down out of state scholarships, accounting for Say Yes in their financial planning.

Turlington says moms like Nelms are not alone and it wasn’t the nonprofit’s intent to mislead people. They based their calculations on models that were wrong.

“Rather than it being a volume issue, it's more of an average dollar amount concern that kind of created the problem,” Turlington said.

Now there are income tiers for students enrolled in Guilford County to qualify for the program. The more a family makes, the less funding they can be eligible to receive from Say Yes. It also includes a sliding grade enrollment cutoff as well.

Families making $40,000 or less per year will get 100 percent of tuition covered, if the student has been enrolled in Guilford County schools since ninth grade.

Families making $40,000 to $75,000 per year will receive $4,500 per year if the student has been enrolled since sixth grade. Families making $75,001 to $100,000 per year will receive $2,250 per year if their student has been enrolled since fourth grade. Families making more than $100,000 per year are no longer eligible for the program.

Because Nelms’ daughter has been enrolled in Guilford County schools since the fifth grade, she misses the cutoff point for Say Yes by one year, since the family is in the highest tier for eligibility. With ECU in-state tuition set at more than $4,000 per year, that’s an extra more than $12,000 Nelms will have to account for without Say Yes support.

“I think it's very unfair because this directly impacts the middle class,” Nelms said. She argues the class of 2016 should be grandfathered into the system.

“That was certainly one of the options on the table to grandfather those kids in, but what I heard the scholarship board say is, that's a $6 million cost multiplied by four, because you have to follow that class through all the way to seniors,” Turlington said. “That's $24 million. What the scholarship board has also said is they are not going to spend money that they don't have.”

Say Yes is entirely funded by donations and private money. Turlington says the endowment is roughly $42 million, and they can’t spend all that money right away. They hope with this new model, they will be handing out closer to $1 million every year for eligible Guilford County student to help pay or completely cover tuition.