By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
EL DORADO, Ark. -- This blue-collar city in the heart of Arkansas' timber-producing region has been losing population, statewide political clout and federal funding for the past 40 years. Then last year, an automotive equipment plant said goodbye, sending 650 manufacturing jobs overseas.
But last week, little El Dorado (pronounced el duh-RAY-doh) became a destination city. The focus on booming northwest Arkansas, where corporate giants such as Wal-Mart and Tyson Foods make their homes, just shifted south.
A city of 21,530 just north of the Louisiana border, El Dorado now boasts a program that guarantees that high school graduates from the area can afford college courtesy of a $50 million gift from its own local benefactor, Murphy Oil Corp.
The El Dorado Promise, as the program is called, is not based on grades or financial need. A student must enroll in a community college or a four-year university -- public or private, in Arkansas or out of state -- maintain a 2.0 grade-point average and Murphy Oil will pay the tuition and mandatory fees for up to five years.
To be eligible for the program, students must have attended local schools for at least four years. The annual scholarship is limited to the highest yearly rate charged by an Arkansas public university, currently $6,010, but the oil company has factored inflation into the program, which will last 20 years. The Promise begins with El Dorado's 2007 graduating class.
Senior class guidance counselor Vince Dawson used to spend his time trying to persuade students to go to college. Now he's busy signing them up for entrance exams and answering questions from parents who are marching into his office to find out how to take advantage of the program.
"We're just so overwhelmed and humbled by this," said the soft-spoken Dawson, who is putting his oldest son through college and is looking at sending three more -- a ninth-grader, a seventh-grader and a second-grader -- through the higher education pipeline. "As a parent, I will benefit, too."
The idea for the El Dorado Promise, one of the most generous scholarship programs in the nation, was broached last spring at a local chamber of commerce meeting. Chamber president Don Wales said a member brought in a newspaper article about the Kalamazoo Promise in Michigan. There, a group of anonymous donors designed a scholarship program with Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Janice Brown that was aimed at spurring economic development in the region. The donors would pay for college tuition for students who had lived in the district at least four years, graduated from one of Kalamazoo's three high schools and attended a public university in Michigan.
The program was announced in late 2005, and an investor immediately said that he would spend $10 million to build new homes in the city. Of the city's 500 graduates last year, 318 received Kalamazoo Promise money. By fall 2006, 986 new students from 88 Michigan communities, 32 states and nine foreign countries had enrolled in Kalamazoo schools, Brown said, reversing an annual loss of 700 pupils.
The goal, said Brown, is to transform the "community economically and educationally," and long-term results will be analyzed by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo.
The scholarship program is "really a way to align resources around a very important element for future growth in a vital community," said Randall Eberts, the institute's executive director. "It's more than just the percent [of students] with BAs. It's a cultural change."
That's what officials in Arkansas hope to achieve. Arkansas' percentage of college graduates -- 16.7 -- is the second-lowest in the nation. Union County, where El Dorado is located, has 15 percent. The county's per capita income is slightly less than $32,000, and in El Dorado, 61 percent of the school district's 4,400 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches -- an indicator of low income. The district's student body is 57 percent African American, 42 percent white and almost 1 percent Latino.
Although 65 percent of El Dorado's high school graduates traditionally attend a community college or university, school officials say that only a small number earn a degree. "Many don't finish because of a lack of funds," said schools Superintendent Bob Watson. "Absolutely, this will help."
Local chamber of commerce officials approached Murphy Oil about creating the scholarship program. The company had a long record as a benefactor to El Dorado schools. It runs a foundation that rewards teacher excellence and high-scoring students, and pays for endowed math, science and foreign language chairs in the district. The company's board of directors unanimously approved the El Dorado Promise at its December meeting.
"That was the easiest decision they made that day," said Claiborne Deming, president and chief executive of Murphy Oil, the nation's ninth-largest petroleum refiner, which supplies service stations at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club. "This program is to award everyone. If you want to go to college, by goodness, we're going to give you that opportunity."
The El Dorado Promise was announced at a high school assembly last week, stunning students, parents and teachers, and bringing many to tears.
Corey Charles, 17, a football player whose grades qualify him to be an "Arkansas Scholar" but who assumed he could not afford a four-year college, may now be able to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville to pursue his dream of becoming a coach. "This scholarship is a blessing," he said. "I'm so happy and relieved."
Staff writer Matthew C. Wright in Austin contributed to this report.