What would Baltimore look like if every city school graduate were promised a free college education?
It's an $80 million question that a group of political, educational and philanthropic leaders will attempt to answer in the next few months as they vie to make Baltimore the next city to provide college scholarships for all students.
The national Say Yes to Education organization has chosen Baltimore to submit a proposal showing how local leaders would work together to help students socially, academically and financially to graduate from high school and enroll in college.
If chosen, Baltimore would join Syracuse and Buffalo, N.Y., in covering tuition for all students, regardless of income, to attend the state's public universities. Students from low-income households would also be eligible to receive full scholarships to dozens of private colleges.
City schools CEO Gregory Thornton, who is among the officials leading the effort, said he has heard a sense of hopelessness among parents in the city.
"It's not just about college scholarships," he said. "It takes everybody, brings us together and advances the conversation to be sure we truly, really don't leave any child behind."
City and education officials see the program as a way to attract more families to the city and to help students — many of whom have to leave school before graduating because of financial problems — remain in college.
To be accepted by Say Yes, the city would need to show $40 million in the bank — half the $80 million Say Yes officials estimate it would cost to cover scholarships for 10 years.
Local leaders say $80 million is a conservative estimate and that the cost would rise as more students become college-ready.
The city school board, the mayor's office and the Baltimore Community Foundation are working with Thornton to bring the program to the city. Officials say the city's candidacy will hinge on their ability to demonstrate broad support from local government, education advocates and community leaders.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Say Yes could attract and retain families and increase opportunities for youth.
She called the goal of paying for all students to go to college "more than realistic" and said the city is exploring the resources available to support it.
"We're committed to looking for ways to provide access to more of our young people," Rawlings-Blake said. "And this process that we're in now is making sure that Say Yes is the right fit for Baltimore and that Baltimore is the right fit for Say Yes."
The campaign to bring Say Yes to Baltimore has quietly taken shape during the past year among a group of city and community leaders over a series of meetings and a trip to Buffalo to see the program in action.
The nonprofit, created 28 years ago by businessman and philanthropist George Weiss, has won praise from President Barack Obama. Similar efforts around the nation, such as "promise" scholarship programs in Pittsburgh and Kalamazoo, Mich., have produced encouraging results.
Bob Embry, president of the Abell Foundation, said he saw enthusiasm for the program in Buffalo.
Still, he said, "there are a lot of questions about what the specifications of such a program are, and whether that money can be raised."
The city's application, part of which is to be submitted in the fall, will require audits of financial records and an examination of extensive data on school programs.
Officials plan to include a detailed, six-year plan for how the city, state and school system would help prepare students for college through legal, mental health and tutoring services, for example, and offering extended school days and more summer programs.
Say Yes would provide $15 million in start-up funds for such services, but the city would have to sustain them in its budget.
Tom Wilcox, who heads the Baltimore Community Foundation and has helped lead the Say Yes effort, said getting private and public groups to re-examine their resources and possibly reprioritize them will not be easy.
"We're asking people to open their books, share how they do business, and that's really hard," he said.
Wilcox said the city will have to raise funds differently, tapping new sources, soliciting individual donors, and persuading philanthropists to invest in ways they haven't before.
Officials say it will take $8 million to $12 million per year to sustain the scholarship fund alone.
"I believe we can do this," Wilcox said. "Because even people who are cynical about government can collaborate around children. And this is the first [initiative] that gets everybody involved and holds everybody accountable."
Wilcox said the city hopes to award the first "last-dollar" scholarships for students to attend state schools in 2017. Last-dollar scholarships cover costs that remain after students receive state, federal and other aid.
Students whose families earn less than $75,000 would be eligible for full-tuition scholarships to a network of private colleges that partner with Say Yes. The scholarships would also cover vocational and trade schools.
About a quarter of Baltimore's graduating class of 4,364 students this year was admitted to four-year colleges, according to district data; nearly half was accepted to two-year colleges. Almost 2,300 city students completed applications for federal student aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Acceptance is only the beginning. Morgan State University President David Wilson says he studied the Class of 2010 to determine why students did not return after their first year and found that nearly 40 percent could not afford to come back.
"I am shocked by the number of emails I still get from students who are making meaningful academic progress, but they simply cannot come up with the money needed to keep themselves in college," he said.
State universities and the city's education unions would have to sign off on the Say Yes application.
Wilson said he would support it.
"If we did this, the city of Baltimore would realize that many of these young people will finish college, create a middle class and break the cycle of poverty," he said. "This is not rocket science."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said teachers would welcome the guarantee of free college for their students.
"Anything that supports children, we definitely support," she said. "When we teach our children, we always hope that they will be able to go to college, and this lifts a huge burden."
Many pointed out that other programs in the city provide similar support.
The Johns Hopkins University, for example, offers full-tuition scholarships to Baltimore public high school students who are accepted to the university. Last fall, 14 members of the Baltimore Scholars Program entered the freshman class. Eleven entered in fall 2013 and 14 in fall 2012.
Wilcox acknowledged concern that Say Yes would take resources and momentum away from what is already happening in the city.
"This is not a program," he said. "This is a collaborative, and we want to take advantage of what's happening."
City school officials say the unrest that followed the death of Freddie Gray in April showed that current programs are not enough.
"This is bigger than Baltimore City schools, this is about Baltimore City, period," said Marnell Cooper, chair of the city school board.
"Say Yes is an individual broker that has no allegiance to a particular person or idea in Baltimore City but can function as a facilitator to help us collaborate in ways we've been challenged to do so."
State Schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery said one of the most attractive things about Say Yes is that it "compelled collaboration."
Lowery said she believes the program sends a positive new message to students.
"We're always talking about giving children hope," she said. "This goes beyond hope to certainty."