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Promise made. Promise kept.

Credit forward-thinking philanthropists for a continuing program to boost college-going rates in parts of Arkansas.

With the start of classes at institutions of higher learning all around Arkansas this week, it's a good time to remember the helping hand some lucky students are getting.

They're lucky because they have lived and gone to school where "Promise"-style scholarships are offered. They earn them by first graduating high school.

These scholarships aren't based on financial need or even on grades, although an eligible recipient must be accepted to an accredited college. And, to keep the scholarship money coming, the student must stay in college and make progress toward a degree.

The students obviously benefit, but so do their hometowns. It is an investment that is paying off in El Dorado and Arkadelphia and in some northeast Arkansas communities.

Folks in El Dorado started offering Promise scholarships more than a decade ago, modeling them after an idea that took root in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 2005.

A place-based initiative, the Kalamazoo Promise offered graduates of the local school district full tuition to Michigan public colleges, paid for by anonymous donors there.

By 2007, Murphy Oil Corp., based in El Dorado, committed $50 million over 10 years, guaranteeing that qualifying high school graduates from that South Arkansas school district could have money for college in Arkansas or any accredited two- or four-year college or university in the U.S.

In its first 10 years, the El Dorado Promise paid all or part of tuition and other mandatory fees for more than 2,000 students at 129 colleges and universities in 29 states.

Murphy Oil continues to support the program, even though the time for the initial commitment has expired.

The goal is not only to make college possible for local students but also to stimulate growth and create an educated workforce to attract new residents and jobs.

It's working and El Dorado's program is now a model for others.

Any El Dorado graduate who has been in school there since at least the ninth grade can qualify for some funding, with those who attend K-12 in El Dorado eligible for the most money. The maximum amount matches the highest annual resident tuition at an Arkansas public university.

The scholarships can extend for five consecutive years of college.

The Arkadelphia Promise differs in substantial ways, including the amount of money available to local graduates.

Southern Bancorp and the Arkadelphia-based Ross Foundation have each invested roughly $6 million in that Promise program, which pledges college tuition assistance to Arkadelphia High School graduates. The program there was announced in 2010.

How much help a student gets depends in part on how long he or she attended Arkadelphia schools. Also, recipients must first qualify for one of the lottery-funded Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships and maintain eligibility for it in order to keep the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship. The Arkadelphia Promise pays the difference in tuition cost.

Linking the state and local programs reportedly made the Arkadelphia program financially feasible.

Some colleges are using Promise scholarships as local recruitment tools.

Great River Promise scholarships are offered by Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville and at Phillips Community College campuses in Helena-West Helena and DeWitt. They are designed to attract students from high schools in Mississippi and Phillips counties to the local institutions.

Southern Bancorp, Nucor-Yamato Steel Inc., Nucor Steel Arkansas and the Greater Blytheville Chamber of Commerce are among their benefactors.

College admission requirements must be met and applicants must exhaust all other scholarship and financial aid programs first, but the underlying promise remains: "Stay in school, stay out of trouble, work hard, earn your high school diploma, and there will be money to cover your full tuition and mandatory fees."

What the colleges offer isn't quite what El Dorado or Arkadelphia does.

What all the programs do have in common is the idea that any child entering school in any of these places can go to college.

Naturally, El Dorado's program has the best evidence of its success.

Its 10-year anniversary report says the Promise there sparked a "college-going" culture within the district. Students, now bent on academic achievement, demand more rigorous courses and more offerings.

The program's planners had expected that families might move to the city to take advantage of the Promise, that a declining school enrollment would stabilize and that more El Dorado students would go to college.

The impact on student behavior was not expected. Students (and their parents) saw opportunity and seized it.

In that 10th year of the program, more than 84 percent of El Dorado's Promise-eligible graduates were attending college.

That was way above the statewide college-going rate of 50 percent at the time and higher, too, than the national rate of nearly 66 percent.

What's more, El Dorado's college-going culture extends even to kindergartners. They literally start school with a Promise backpack and are taught from the first day of school that college can be in any of their futures.

Commentary on 08/22/2018

Print Headline: A promising future

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