ARKADELPHIA, Ark. (AP) — Southern Bancorp Inc., the Ross Foundation and Murphy Oil Corp. are spending millions on Promise scholarships that sponsors and an administrator say have increased the college-going rate of high school graduates in Arkadelphia and El Dorado.

The scholarships offer to pay college tuition and fees for most high school graduates from certain geographic areas.

The El Dorado and Arkadelphia programs have also inspired the Great River Promise scholarships offered by Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville and at the Helena-West Helena and DeWitt campuses of Phillips Community College.

ANC and Phillips do not track the local college-going rates, but school officials said the Promise scholarships have succeeded in attracting students.

Sponsors and administrators of all the Promise programs have said they will bring a more educated workforce to their regions, a plus for existing businesses and for economic development efforts to bring in new businesses.

The El Dorado Promise program was the first, begun in in 2007 with a 10-year, $50 million funding commitment from Murphy Oil.

Southern Bancorp and the Ross Foundation have committed about $6 million each to the Arkadelphia Promise program, which began in 2010, Executive Director Jason Jones said. Mary Elizabeth Eldridge, director of programs for the Ross Foundation, said that funding is an 18-year commitment.

Nucor-Yamato Steel Inc. and Nucor Steel Arkansas in Mississippi County have committed $150,000 a year for seven years to Arkansas Northeastern College's program, which began in 2011. The Greater Blytheville Area Chamber of Commerce has also sponsored those scholarships.

Southern Bancorp contributed $263,000 to launch the Great River Promise program at Phillips Community College's Helena-West Helena campus, but the program at Phillips' DeWitt campus doesn't have a corporate sponsor. Those programs began in 2010.

The foundations of both ANC and Phillips raise money every year to fund the scholarships.

For Southern Bancorp of Little Rock, long-term sponsorship of Arkadelphia Promise scholarships fits its mission, which is "to create economic opportunity in rural and underserved communities." It also fits the mission of the co-sponsor, the Ross Foundation, which is dedicated to improving the lives of Clark County residents.

Southern Bancorp has roots in the city; the bank began as a holding company, and the first bank it acquired was Elk Horn Bank in Arkadelphia. The Ross Foundation is headquartered in Arkadelphia.

"We think (the Arkadelphia Promise program has) been very, very positive for the community and very, very consistent with our focus on trying to lift the net worth of people that we serve," Southern Bancorp CEO Darrin Williams said. "Probably what underlies building that worth more than anything is education. Education has been deemed as the greatest opportunity equalizer in America, so we're happy to support Arkadelphia Promise."

For Murphy Oil of El Dorado, funding Promise scholarships carries on its tradition of supporting the community, especially through education, according to materials provided by Allison Parker, a company spokeswoman.

"The company created the Promise because it is vitally important to have a school district in south Arkansas that is academically rigorous and has a college-going culture," Murphy Oil Chairman Claiborne Deming, who spearheaded the program's launch when he was CEO, said in a statement to Arkansas Business . "The entire region benefits when there is a district of this caliber."

The quantifiable payoff of these corporate investments has been a rise in how many Arkadelphia and El Dorado high school graduates are attending college.

The college-going rate for Arkadelphia High School graduates has increased from 62 percent to between 74 and 76 percent every year since the Arkadelphia Promise program began, said Jones, the executive director.

This fall, over $2.5 million in Arkadelphia Promise scholarships will have been awarded to about 400 students.

Another metric, how many AHS graduates who enrolled as freshmen in college return to college as sophomores, also indicates the program's success, he said. The freshman-to-sophomore retention rate for AHS grads is 77 percent, Jones said.

Meanwhile, El Dorado has seen an even more dramatic gain in the college-going rate of El Dorado High School graduates.

From 2007-15, that rate was 82 percent, up from 62 percent in 2004-06, according to a booklet produced last year for the 10th anniversary of the program.

Promise scholarships have been awarded to more than 2,200 students so far, but Parker declined to disclose how much money has been awarded. Although Murphy Oil has met its original 10-year commitment, the company is continuing to support the program, she said.

Eldridge, with the Ross Foundation, said it is just beginning to think about the future of the Arkadelphia Promise program now that the funding commitment for it is nearing the halfway mark.

She and Jones agree on the program's potential to aid economic development.

"We know that any kind of industry that comes in is going to need — yes, they may need people working on the floor of the factory, but they also need middle management and upper-level management," Jones said.

"And so, when this was started, the idea was to help provide a more educated workforce for any type of industry that might move into our area. And we really think the Arkadelphia Promise has done as much to help that as anything else that's happened in Arkadelphia."

Eldridge said the scholarships can also help existing companies recruit workers who want to see their children attend college.

Williams, with Southern Bancorp, believes the Promise program also has had a stabilizing effect on the city's population and economy.

Though they share a name, the Promise scholarships all vary in their mechanics.

To qualify for any of the Great River Promise scholarships, students must have a 95 percent high school punctuality and attendance record and have no alcohol- or drug-related convictions.

The ANC Great River Promise scholarships are available to students who have graduated from high schools in Mississippi County or Buffalo Island Central High School in Craighead County. So far, $229,367 in scholarships has been awarded to 200 ANC students since 2011.

High school graduates in Phillips and Arkansas counties who plan to enroll at either of the Phillips Community College campuses are eligible for Great River Promise scholarships. So far, more than 100 scholarships totaling more than $60,000 have been awarded.

The El Dorado Promise scholarships are available to every El Dorado High School graduate who has been enrolled in that school district since at least ninth grade and is planning to attend an accredited U.S. institution of higher education.

The maximum a student can receive is set by the highest annual resident tuition at a public institution in Arkansas, which was $9,439 for 2018-19, according to the Arkansas Department of Higher Education.

The scholarship is renewable for five consecutive years if the student maintains a 2.0 GPA and completes 12 credit hours per semester.

The number of years that students have attended El Dorado schools determines how much Promise money they receive, with children who have attended from kindergarten through 12th grade receiving the full benefit. After that, there is a sliding scale that drops to the lowest amount — 65 percent — for kids who have attended EHS only from grades 9-12.

That is also a feature of the Promise program in Arkadelphia.

However, to be eligible for the Arkadelphia Promise scholarship, students must also qualify for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship, the lottery scholarship. They must be Arkadelphia High School graduates and be planning to attend an accredited U.S. institution.

Adding the lottery scholarship requirement and partnering with Southern Bancorp is what made the Ross Foundation's sponsorship financially feasible, Eldridge said.

Starting this year, the scholarship will be up to $5,000 a semester for college freshmen. Sophomores, juniors and seniors will receive up to $3,000 a semester.

The scholarship is renewable for four consecutive years if the students maintain a 2.5 GPA, complete 27 credit hours their first year and complete 30 credit hours each year that follows.

Promise programs have thrived thanks to their corporate sponsors, said Jones, director of Arkadelphia Promise.

"Every conference that I go to or that I'm asked to speak at, everybody wants to know 'How do I get this started?' My simple response is 'You've got to go find the money,'" he said. "For us and for El Dorado, for us to be able to do it the way we've done it, we were, No. 1, we were blessed to have funders who wanted to try to do something in the community. And that's made the difference for us."

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Information from: Arkansas Business, http://www.arkansasbusiness.com