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El Dorado Promise Shows Promising Results

Test scores are rising, graduation rates are improving, and enrollment is growing in one rural Arkansas school district that received a $50 million private pledge to give students college tuition.

This apparent fairytale started five years ago in El Dorado, Ark., a city of roughly 19,000 residents in the southern part of the state near the Louisiana border. The Murphy Oil Corporation, which is headquartered in El Dorado, promised in January 2007 to give $50 million to El Dorado Public Schools graduates so they could have the opportunity to earn a college degree without the burden of tuition.

A new report about the program, the El Dorado Promise, describes the progress that's been made since then. Nearly 1,000 students have received the scholarship funding, which is based on how long they're enrolled in El Dorado schools. Anyone who attended all 13 years receives 100 percent of the available funds, and that's based on the maximum cost of an Arkansas public university. This year, that came out to $7,180.

To stay eligible for the money, college students have to: be making progress toward a bachelor's or associate's degree, maintain a 2.0 cumulative grade point average, enroll in at least 12 credit hours per semester, and complete at least 24 credit hours each academic year.

The motivation of a free college education appears to be having an effect on some students. More students are taking Advanced Placement courses, and a higher percentage of students are earning passing scores on those exams, according to the El Dorado Promise report. And the now seventh-grade students who were in third-grade when the grant was announced are doing better than a comparison group of similar students (based on test scores, income level and geography).

The district's dropout rate also has improved; it was higher than the state average in 2006-07, but it's fallen to below the state average now. And its graduation rate has increased, although the report didn't give exact figures on how much.

Even the school district's enrollment is growing. Like most districts in southern Arkansas, El Dorado had seen its student population shrinking every year. But when the scholarship program was announced, that changed. Enrollment is up by about 150 students to 4,581, compared to one independent study that estimated the district would've lost 200 students by now.

Not surprisingly, college enrollment rates are also up. Sixty percent of students enrolled in college before the scholarship program, and that's increased to 81 percent this past fall.

The report didn't discuss the college completion rates for students who received the scholarship, or the percentage of students who returned to the community after earning a degree. We'd be interested in seeing both. More than 20 percent of recipients go to SouthArk Community College in El Dorado, and both enrollment and degrees awarded there have increased.

All that said, the numbers show this El Dorado Promise is making a difference.

I'm wondering whether other private companies have made similar investments, and whether they've seen similar results. Is dangling a free college education to students incentive enough to change a school district? Time will tell.

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