Editor's note: The city of Pine Bluff is undertaking a transformation in the Pine Bluff and Watson Chapel school districts and trying again to renew and add sales taxes to fund capital improvements and support police officers and firefighters in a Nov. 14 election. Meanwhile, El Dorado residents have enjoyed changes for the better since 2007, which include the "Promise" of a free or less-expensive education and a series of sales taxes leading to a more vibrant community.
This is the first of two stories taking a closer look at how a south Arkansas city has benefited from its initiatives, and what Pine Bluff might learn from it.
EL DORADO -- Long considered a game changer, education has carried a big presence in Pine Bluff for more than a century.
A recent graduate of Pine Bluff High School or Watson Chapel High School, if one so chooses, can continue an education right at home through either Southeast Arkansas College, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff or both. In a city that has battled economic challenges in recent decades, a college degree has been a much-needed gateway to the so-called real world – but in many cases, at a steep cost.
About 90 miles south of Pine Bluff, another city has seen an investment in higher education pay off greatly.
According to the local school district, more than 2,850 students have attended college across the country either for free or at a very small cost on an El Dorado Promise scholarship since Murphy Oil Corp., formerly based in El Dorado, made a $50 million investment in establishing the program in 2007.
El Dorado Promise pays up to five years of a student's higher education to a two- or four-year U.S. public or private institution.
The scholarship program is only available for students who graduate from the El Dorado School District and have attended school in the district since ninth grade or earlier.
For example, one who attended the district from grades kindergarten through 12 can go to college for up to the entire cost of the highest resident tuition at a public university in Arkansas. One who entered the district in fifth grade will receive 85% of the benefit and one who entered in ninth grade will receive 65%.
Two-year colleges have included courses that previously only offered a certificate into associate degree programs, El Dorado Promise Director Tiffany Hurley said, naming cosmetology as an example at an area college. That has proven important in a high school graduate's decision to attend college on the Promise, which does not pay for certificate programs.
"My big thing is to get as many students to tell me what [they] want to do, and I will find a way for the Promise to benefit them," said Hurley, who took over the program over the summer.
The Promise includes requirements for students to maintain the scholarship, including a 2.0 grade-point average and 12 completed credit hours per semester.
Enrollment in the El Dorado School District had been on a steady decline before the start of the Promise, according to the program website. By the 2015-16 school year, the district had increased enrollment above expectations by 15.5% -- at least 600 more students in a district of at least 4,500.
Before the Promise, 62% of El Dorado High graduates between 2004-06 attended college. From 2007-15, 82% of the graduates went to college on the Promise.
A graduate student is doing a dissertation on the Promise with a focus on its benefits and keeping the program despite the move of Murphy Oil's headquarters to Houston in 2020, Hurley said.
"There was always a rumor even before I got here that the Promise wasn't going to be here," Hurley said. So the graduate student is gathering records to reveal the success of the program.
A majority of the Promise recipients have attended South Arkansas College, a two-year institution in El Dorado, according to interim college President Stephanie Tully-Dartez.
"With being a two-year college and being in their backyard, a lot of students would look to us," she said. "That's been very good. You're seeing the conversation had very early with the community's students about going to college and making plans for college. That's not something you necessarily see in most communities."
Unlike in Pine Bluff, access to a four-year college or university is not as convenient in El Dorado. Graduates of El Dorado High would have to travel at least 40 minutes to Southern Arkansas University to the west, an hour to Louisiana Tech University to the south, or 71 minutes to the University of Arkansas at Monticello to the northeast.
That might not be a big concern to those who receive a Promise scholarship.
"The money is taken out of the equation because it's not like, can my family afford to do this?" Tully-Dartez said. "It means the conversation about college starts earlier, which is good. We're trying to shift that locally to there being a conversation about careers earlier, so we are really helping them find the path they want when they get to college, not just to go to college. I'd say, impact-wise, that's one of those things where we can start the conversation earlier."
A similar program has been introduced earlier this month for Hempstead County high school graduates who want to attend the University of Arkansas Hope-Texarkana, a two-year campus. Beginning with the class of 2024, a graduate in that county can attend UAHT completely free for their first year, thanks to the Hempstead Guarantee.
Such a program is not known to exist in Jefferson County. The city of Pine Bluff announced in August 2022 a savings program called Pine Bluff Promise that would allow kindergarten through 12th-grade students to either save for college, launch a business or own a home. Pine Bluff Mayor Shirley Washington said at the time the goal of Pine Bluff Promise, which she said was still under development, was to break the cycle of generational poverty.
When Pine Bluff Promise would launch has not yet been announced.
In El Dorado, about 60% of students who attend South Arkansas College on that city's Promise choose careers in health sciences, Tully-Dartez estimated.
In Tully-Dartez's 14 years at the campus, she's hired four students who graduated on the Promise.
"I love it when we have a class graduate and four of them just got hired by the hospital here or got hired by the plant down the street," she said. "But I understand sometimes they're going to go off and go to a different college, even go out of state, but I do love it when I see them return and they want to buy a home here and have kids and go to school."
The Promise helped entice Murphy Oil employees to bring their families to El Dorado and take advantage of the promise, but it was not meant to provide a significant economic or population boon to the city, according to Hurley. El Dorado, however, has seen economic and capital improvements in the last 15 years thanks to a series of taxes.
Monday: How a sales and use tax has benefited El Dorado.