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State of the South 2014: Making College Possible in the Arkansas Delta

State of the South 2014: Making College Possible in the Arkansas Delta

On Tuesday, Oct. 21, MDC will be releasing the latest in the State of the South series, entitled “Building an Infrastructure of Opportunity for the Next Generation.” This is one in a series of highlights from the report and sidelights on the nine communities we’re profiling. Subscribe to the blog to receive an announcement when the report is available and follow us on Instagram as we count down to the launch. 

Across several Southern states, educational opportunities for youth are defined by where they live. This fact is evident in rural areas where access to opportunities are often few and far away.

Many students raised in the rural South are not provided the same academic and college preparatory resources as their urban counterparts. And in state and national conversations discussing ways to increase educational attainment, rural students are frequently overlooked.

During our State of the South visit to Arkansas this summer, we heard about the state’s culture of collaboration: when community members see an issue, they come together to fix it. So when rural residents realized their children were not going to college, they came together to find ways to reduce the barriers that kept young people from taking that next step.

One example of a community solution to increasing college readiness is in the Arkansas Delta, aptly named The College Initiative (TCI). TCI provides low-income students with the tools they need to attend and succeed in college. “It’s impossible for a student to do this on his or her own,” says Gabriel Fosting, founder of TCI. “So we try to bring in as many resources as possible to help students.” Partnering with local school districts, college students, and Delta communities, TCI helps students with the college application process, ACT/SAT test preparation, and financial aid counseling.

TCI’s results are impressive. Since the program’s inception, counselors have worked with 120 low-income “scholars,” and all of them have been accepted into college, including Ivy League institutions like Cornell and Harvard. The average ACT score for TCI scholars is 21, well above the Delta average of 14. And the students are staying in college; there is a 98 percent persistence rate among TCI scholars. Fosting hopes to increase TCI’s impact in the Delta by scaling the program, with a growth plan designed to reach 6,000 students by 2016.

The main barrier for students not attending college often is purely financial. Some students do not see college as an option because they don’t have the finances. In El Dorado, Ark., a rural community next to the Louisiana border, the Murphy Oil Corporation established a promise scholarship. The El Dorado Promise provides all local high school graduates with scholarships covering tuition and fees that can be used at any accredited two- or four-year, public or private educational institution in the United States. The amount of a student’s scholarship is determined by his or her length of attendance in the El Dorado Public School District. For example, a student who attends El Dorado schools from kindergarten to her senior year would receive a full scholarship. A student who attends an El Dorado high school from 9th to 12th grade would receive 65 percent of the scholarship amount.

Nearly 1,500 students have participated in the El Dorado Promise over the last seven years. Before the Promise, 65 percent of El Dorado seniors enrolled in college. In 2013, over 90 percent of Promise-eligible students enrolled in college. According to Governor Mike Bebee, this program has changed the culture of El Dorado and even strengthened the area’s workforce. “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.”

More community efforts like these—helping rural students access educational resources and alleviating inequities in access to these resources—is what it will take to increase opportunities for success for youth and young adults across the rural South.