College costs have risen four times faster than the annual rate of inflation in recent decades. No one is more aware of this than today’s students and their parents. Sticker shock, mixed with the daunting class loads of college, can cause some students to consider forgoing higher education. But these days, it can actually cost more not to go to college. In 2013, the earnings gap between young adults with and without bachelor’s degrees grew to its widest level in nearly a half-century, according to the Pew Research Center.
Low educational attainment doesn’t just affect individuals; it also affects communities. Without a well-educated workforce, it becomes tougher for communities to meet the changing demands of their existing employers, as well as to recruit new businesses. This is the main reason that I have made it a goal to double the number of college graduates in Arkansas by 2025.
One local program has shown remarkable results for promoting higher education and eliminating financial barriers for college-bound students. Over the past seven years, the El Dorado Promise has provided college scholarships to nearly 1,500 students.
Generously funded by the locally based Murphy Oil Corp., the program covers the full cost of residential in-state tuition for students who receive their entire K-12 education from the school district. Scholarships can be used toward degrees at any accredited two- or four-year, public or private educational institution in the United States. Partial scholarships are available to students who graduate from El Dorado High School and have been in an El Dorado Public School since at least the ninth grade.
In fact, last year, 90 percent of the Promise-eligible class enrolled in college. This is well above the national average, which is exactly where we need to be to achieve our goal. The decrease in these students’ out-of-pocket college expenses and the increase in the number of students going to college is just the beginning. The El Dorado Promise has also prompted the district’s students to outperform their peers on math and reading tests, making them better prepared for college.
Not surprisingly, the allure of scholarship money has attracted families outside the school district. This has benefited the district, which was experiencing declining enrollment numbers along with other towns in Southern Arkansas. This reversal has also helped area employers, who now have a larger pool of potential employees to choose from. I am hopeful that, once these students obtain their degrees, they will stay in Arkansas to put their education to use.
The El Dorado Promise was the first program of its kind in Arkansas, and one of the first nationally. It exemplifies the type of ingenuity that can help our State achieve the quality of life we want for our children and grandchildren. If we keep finding innovative partnerships and commitments,
Arkansas students will be ready to adapt to the changing job-market demands in the coming decades. The better we prepare our younger generations, the more momentum we will have for our economy and our quality of life.