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College-Tuition Program Linked to Higher Test Scores, District Enrollment in Rural Arkansas

A program in El Dorado, Ark., that offers local high school graduates tuition for up to five years of college has helped increase student enrollment in the district and has positively impacted student achievement, according to a recently released report.

The El Dorado Promise program started in 2007 and is supported by a $50 million donation from the El Dorado-based Murphy Oil Company. Students who have attended school in the southern Arkansas district for at least four years are eligible to receive money for college, which could amount to more than $7,500 per year.

Researchers at the University of Arkansas' office for education policy examined district enrollment numbers from the 1990-91 school year through the 2011-12 school year to determine how the program has impacted enrollment since its inception. Between the 1990-91 and 2006-07 school years, the district's enrollment decreased by 14 percent. Since the program's first year, enrollment in the district has increased by about 3 percent. The authors also noted that while neighboring districts have seen an increase in low-income students, the El Dorado school district has seen its low-income percentage hold steady. "This may be a function of increased economic vitality in the El Dorado community, an enhanced desire of middle-class residents to remain in El Dorado, or an influx of middle-class families to El Dorado," the report's authors concluded. "This appears to be another positive impact of the Promise."

Researchers also "matched" more than 2,000 students in El Dorado with academically and demographically comparable students in other districts to determine the program's impact on academics. Overall, El Dorado students have grown slightly in both math and reading, while their matched peers' scores have decreased. Educators in El Dorado told researchers that after the program was announced, they "redoubled their efforts to ensure that they held high expectations for all students, in light of the fact that all El Dorado students now had the financial means to further their education."

The El Dorado program is modeled after The Kalamazoo Promise program, which began in Michigan in 2005. Like Kalamazoo's program, the one in El Dorado is not based on grades or financial need. Since 2007, more than 1,400 students have received scholarships and 62 percent of recipients completed at least two years of college.

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