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College bound from El Dorado

I wrote recently how excited I am now that my hometown has created a scholarship program known as the Arkadelphia Promise, based in part on the four-year-old El Dorado Promise.

Awarding college scholarships to all graduates of Arkadelphia High School — provided they meet certain standards — will do more to advance the town where I was born and raised than anything that has occurred there during my more than half century on this earth.

Four years into the program at El Dorado, the results of the $50 million commitment made by Murphy Oil Corp. are remarkable.

For years, the El Dorado School District had faced a slow but steady decline in enrollment.

The same thing has occurred at Arkadelphia despite the fact that the city is the home of two universities and is located on Interstate 30.

Here’s how the El Dorado superintendent, Bob Watson, puts it: “Nothing short of a bold initiative, which came in the form of the Promise, could reverse this trend.”

The El Dorado Promise was announced on Jan. 22, 2007. In the four years since then, enrollment in the El Dorado School District has increased 5 percent to 4,646 students. Consider the fact that enrollment in surrounding school districts has declined.

While El Dorado’s enrollment increased 5 percent from the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2010, the other five public school districts in Union County saw enrollment decrease 13 percent. Meanwhile, public school enrollment decreased 5 percent at Texarkana, 9 percent at Magnolia, 11 percent at Camden, 12 percent at Crossett and 14 percent at Fordyce.

It’s apparent that parents want their children to have the opportunity to attend college.

After spending 13 years in policy positions at the state and federal government levels, I’ve determined that the best thing Arkansas can do to ensure a brighter future is to increase the number of college graduates.

We’re next to last in the country — behind only West Virginia — in the percentage of residents who hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

That must change.

It’s not just a problem among older Arkansans. According to the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, just 26 percent of Arkansans ages 25-34 have an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 38 percent nationally.

It’s estimated that more than 60 percent of all new jobs will require a college education by 2018. Gov. Mike Beebe has said the state must double the number of college graduates by 2025.

My strong belief that this is the most pressing issue facing our state is one reason I took on the post of president of Arkansas’ Independent Colleges and Universities.

Since the Arkansas Supreme Court came down with its landmark Lake View ruling in November 2002, we’ve done a good job as a state improving K-12 education.

We’re also doing a better job getting students to attend college.

Now the task is to retain those students and ensure they obtain degrees.

Part of what we must do is change the culture of Arkansas, making far more families realize that it’s no longer enough in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century to simply obtain a high school degree and then find a good job in a manufacturing facility or down on the farm.

The jobs associated with manufacturing and agriculture are among those that have become increasingly high-tech.

We all know that policy changes are much easier to institute than cultural changes.

After four years of the El Dorado Promise, however, there seems to be a cultural change occurring in that Union County city.

“We have seen the atmosphere change as students, parents and teachers have embraced a college-bound culture,” Watson says. “From kindergarten, El Dorado students are introduced to the concept of college. They are encouraged to dream big, work hard in school and know that college can be a part of their future.”

The number of El Dorado students taking advanced placement and other rigorous courses has steadily increased. You see, there’s hope even in low-income families that college can become a reality.

The El Dorado Promise pays tuition and mandatory fees for all students who graduate from El Dorado High School, reside in the district and have been a student in the El Dorado School District since at least the ninth grade. Students can use the money at any accredited two-year or four-year college or university in the country. The maximum amount of the scholarship is based on the maximum resident tuition at an Arkansas public university. That’s currently $6,908 per year.

“We know that a big component in increasing the number of college graduates in Arkansas is overcoming financial barriers,” Beebe says. “The El Dorado Promise has shown how a community can help remove those barriers so that students are able to pursue college degrees and realize their dreams.”

Eighty percent of those eligible to receive an El Dorado Promise scholarship have gone on to college, exceeding state and national enrollment rates.

El Dorado students are using their scholarships at 54 colleges and universities. Twenty-one percent are at South Arkansas Community College in El Dorado, 15 percent are at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, 10 percent are at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia, 10 percent are at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia, 9 percent are at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, 11 percent are at other public institutions in Arkansas, 5 percent are at Arkansas private institutions, 11 percent are at out-of-state public institutions and 6 percent are at out-of-state private institutions.

In a recent survey of 117 El Dorado Promise students attending college, 98 percent said El Dorado High School prepared them well for college. Seventy-one percent of them said the El Dorado Promise influenced their decision to further their education goals.

The El Dorado Promise website puts it this way: “Low educational attainment has become a defining characteristic of our nation’s most economically challenged communities. While unemployment today touches all sections of the nation’s workforce, the jobless rate for those who have dropped out of high school is nearly three times that of college graduates. By taking down the financial barriers to attending college, the El Dorado Promise is increasing the number of students who go on to post-secondary education.”

The Lumina Foundation for Education has studied the El Dorado Promise and similar programs nationwide. The foundation believes these programs accelerate the necessary increase in the percentage of people receiving college degrees.

In its four years of existence, the El Dorado Promise has:

— Boosted enrollment in the school district

— Raised student expectations

— Improved student achievement

— Resulted in more students attending college

— Created tools for economic and community development.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if foundations, businesses and individuals could team up to create similar programs in even more Arkansas school districts?

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