Students at El Dorado (Ark.) High School don’t fret about how to pay for college. A big-hearted hometown oil company gives seniors the best graduation gift ever: free tuition.
“I was giddy when I first heard about this,” says Emily Polk, 18, about the El Dorado Promise, a $50 million gift in 2007 from Murphy Oil Corp. that pays college tuition and mandatory fees for students who’ve attended El Dorado public schools since at least ninth grade.
“My parents are so relieved,” says Polk, a freshman at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway.
Her brother Daniel, 20, is a junior at UCA, and brother Jonathan, 17, a senior at El Dorado High School, also expects to benefit from the scholarship program.
The Polk children have attended El Dorado public schools since 2004 and will be eligible to receive about $75,000 in El Dorado Promise funds, which is welcome news for parents Jim and Patty Polk.
“This is something corporate America can do to change America,” says Jim, 55, pastor at First United Methodist Church in El Dorado (pop. 18,884).
Improving the lives of children in his economically depressed hometown is exactly the intent of Claiborne Deming, chairman of Murphy Oil. Deming had heard about a similar scholarship program in Kalamazoo, Mich., funded by anonymous donors, and he asked his company’s board of directors to provide all of the money for the El Dorado Promise.
“I’ve never seen the board approve anything so quickly,” recalls Deming, 57, who promoted the investment as a way to reverse El Dorado’s declining population and to increase college enrollment rates.
Since its inception, the program has provided more than $8.5 million to more than 1,000 El Dorado High School graduates attending 57 colleges and universities. Scholarships are available to all graduates, regardless of their grades, and can be used at any accredited two- or four-year college in the nation. Funding is based upon the maximum resident tuition at an Arkansas public university, currently about $7,200 annually, and is renewable for up to five years if the recipient maintains a 2.0 grade point average.
Not only has the scholarship program provided a financial windfall for college-bound students, it also has promoted education and revitalized the community.
Overall test scores have improved, more students are taking college placement courses, and now 90 percent of El Dorado High School graduates attend college. Families of more than 200 students have moved into the school district and, in 2007, residents approved a property tax increase to build a new $43 million high school, which opened last year.
“After the El Dorado Promise, the community’s attitude markedly improved,” says Mayor Frank Hash, 67.
In April, more than 300 seniors signed pledges to attend college during a ceremony that rivals graduation day in the community. Wearing purple gowns and El Dorado Promise ball caps, seniors paraded into the school stadium as their names were announced.
“Nothing, absolutely nothing, is beyond your grasp, and proof positive is sitting about 10 feet from me,” Deming told the students before introducing former President Bill Clinton, who grew up in nearby Hope (pop. 10,095) and was the first college graduate in his family.
Clinton equated a college education with personal economic freedom. “Education is the key to our economic recovery, and you will be a part of lifting your country back up,” he said.
The El Dorado Promise already is paying dividends as the first group of scholarship recipients graduate from college and enter the workforce without the burden of student loan debt.
“It was a huge, huge blessing,” says Lynsey Colvin, 22, who graduated last year from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock and began her career as a dental hygienist in Searcy, Ark.