The El Dorado Promise: Unique Scholarships Give Teens in a Small Arkansas Town a Shot at College

How this private scholarship program helps impoverished students in Arkansas and why it's worth replicating.

Students that excel at El Dorado High School won't have to worry about expensive tuition, thanks to the El Dorado Promise. (Photo: ImageSource)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

The El Dorado Promise is one of the United States’ most unique scholarship programs. It provides every senior attending El Dorado High School in Arkansas with up to 100 percent tuition and mandatory college fees to any two- or four-year college or university in the United States. Students must qualify academically and have resided in the district since their freshman year.

The scholarship program is established and funded by Murphy Oil Corporation in El Dorado, Ark. Positive recognition isn’t always given to oil companies, but in this case, the program is indicative of how a private foundation can successfully support a public school.

So far, 997 students have received scholarships worth $8,500,000 to 57 colleges and universities since its inception five years ago. The program, endowed by $50 million from the Murphy Oil Corporation, has been praised by former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush and most recently by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

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“This is a tremendous, tremendous success story,” Duncan said in a video message shown at the Academic Signing Day celebration in April. “We need more of these partnerships.” 

El Dorado sits on the Arkansas border, near the Louisiana state line, about 100 miles south of Little Rock. In the 1920s, the town experienced a major oil boom that brought 30,000 people to the region. But as decades passed, the town declined in population as people moved to bigger cities.

The scholarship evolved because leaders wanted to curb declining enrollment in the city’s schools. As a result of the Promise’s creation, an increase in enrollment has steadily occurred. Without it, according to the El Dorado Impact Study, the district would have experienced a continued decrease like other southern Arkansas schools. In fact, some families move to El Dorado simply for the scholarship opportunity.

Because college is now a real option for all students, not just those who can afford it, younger students in El Dorado have become more serious about academics and focused on college.

The report followed students through five grades to see the impact of the scholarship. Starting in third grade, the students matched their peers on testing scores. But after five years, the same students excelled over their peers in other southern Arkansas districts and scored better than students throughout Arkansas.

More students are also enrolling in college-level AP courses than before the scholarship.

The school district has also seen a dramatic decrease in school dropout rates, which is now lower than the state's average. In 2006, the dropout rate was around eight percent. In 2009, it was one percent. In turn, the graduation rate increased.

Enrollment in SouthArk Community College in El Dorado has also increased as 20 percent of those receiving Promise scholarships choose to stay in the region.

“Before the promise, we knew we had students that had the potential and intelligence to attend college, but many thought that going to work after high school graduation was their only option. They now realize that college is an option for them,” Mark Smith, a teacher in the El Dorado school district, says on the scholarship’s website.

Each year, the scholarship hosts an Academic Signing Day, much like what athletes partake in, to sign with a college. They sign a contract, agreeing to work towards a bachelor’s or an associate’s degree, to maintain a 2.0 grade point average, and to complete a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester.

The community has backed the Promise’s efforts. In 2007, citizens voted on a millage increase for a new $43-million high school, which was completed last summer. A new conference center has also been built as a result of a one-cent sales tax.

El Dorado Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Henry Florsheim said in a release, “Creating a skilled workforce is one of the community’s most important tasks. The Promise is giving our citizens opportunities they wouldn’t have had otherwise.” 

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