College scholarships revitalize Arkansas town

One oil company's offer to pay tuition for all graduating seniors brings hope and economic development to El Dorado.

Steve Brawner
Opportunity: Patrick Johnson works with Ryan Dugal at El Dorado High School, where 81 percent of graduating seniors attend college.

When officials announced the El Dorado Promise to an assembly of this Arkansas city's best and brightest high school students, there was a moment of stunned silence.

A local oil company had just committed to paying college tuition and fees for all graduating seniors, regardless of their family income or their grades. Then the students – known as "Arkansas Scholars" because they carry intense course loads – cheered and returned to class. Art teacher Patrick Johnson will never forget what happened next:

"They walked in and said, 'We're all going to college.' Some of the lower-income students said, 'Well, y'all have fun.' And they said, 'No, we're all going to college. If you graduate, you get to go.' "

"It chokes me up," says Mr. Johnson, who at six-foot-plus looks more like a football coach than an artist. "Those students started crying, realizing that something was for them, finally, and that everybody was going to get to go."

Since that announcement in January 2007, El Dorado, Ark., has seen a renaissance. The percentage of graduating seniors attending college has risen from about 60 percent to 81 percent. Families are moving into the school district to take advantage of the program after decades of population decline. The student body has risen by at least 140 students to more than 4,500, and this year's kindergarten class is 12 percent larger than the last. In 2007, the town passed a property-tax increase to replace its 45-year-old high school and created a local sales tax to fund economic development.

A growing trend

Other communities are starting to offer similar scholarship programs. Anonymous donors in Kalamazoo, Mich., kicked off the idea with the Kalamazoo Promise in 2005. Pittsburgh has its "Pittsburgh Promise," and Denver is embarking on its own ambitious scholarship program. In June, organizers hope some 60 communities will attend a PromiseNet conference in Kalamazoo to share ideas and experiences.

But perhaps none has seen such a dramatic turnaround as El Dorado, which sprung up in the 1920s with the discovery of oil but has been stagnant for years.

"There's just a great spirit of renewal here, and it's fun to see," says Claiborne Deming, chief executive of Murphy Oil Corp. and grandson of the company's founder.

When a local banker first told him about the Kalamazoo Promise, Mr. Deming dismissed the idea as noble but unworkable. He later reconsidered, discussed it with members of the Murphy family, and approached the company's board of directors, which approved a $50 million gift. Inaugurated in 2007, the program will pay college tuition and fees for all graduating seniors starting in 2007 and continuing for 20 years.

El Dorado's program mirrors Kalamazoo's, with a few distinctions. While Kalamazoo's program gives students 10 years to take advantage of the program, El Dorado's requires them to enter college the fall semester after graduating high school. Kalamazoo seniors can use their funds to learn a trade skill; El Dorado's program is only for a college education. While Kalamazoo's seniors are limited to the state's public colleges and universities, El Dorado's can attend any school anywhere and receive tuition and fees equal to Arkansas' most expensive state school.

Students who have attended school in the district since kindergarten receive scholarships covering full tuition and fees, with the amount decreasing for newer students until the ninth grade, by which time they must have enrolled in the district to receive a 65 percent scholarship.

An extraordinary opportunity

"In terms of public policy, there are better things we can do" than free-tuition offers, says Prof. Edward St. John, an education-finance expert at the University of Michigan, who believes similar broad-based government programs provide scholarships to students who were going to go to college regardless. "But in terms of a local community with the will to invest in its future, this kind of program, the El Dorado or the Kalamazoo Promise, is one that is extraordinary."

Seniors at El Dorado High School are charting out their college plans. Jasmine Thurston wants to be a prosecuting attorney because she hates crime. Chelsea Corker, who is helping direct the school play, wants to use drama therapy if she becomes a psychologist. Chris Campbell thinks he might want to be a forester because he likes to be outdoors.

"It's instilled a sense of pride, maybe, you know, a willingness to work harder ... [and] earn the gift that's been given to us," he says.

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