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New ideas for scholarships

“Maybe we should get away from the ACT,” HSU head says.

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NEW IDEAS: Henderson's Charles Dunn.
  • NEW IDEAS: Henderson's Charles Dunn.

Though it recently announced a big new step in the awarding of academic scholarships, Henderson State University at Arkadelphia isn’t through pondering the scholarship process, HSU President Charles Dunn says. He suggests that other institutions might want to re-evaluate too.

“Maybe we should get away from the ACT [American College Testing program] and give academic scholarships to people who have lower ACT scores but who can do college-level work,” Dunn said. “Now, we automatically give money to a high ACT score, and more money as the ACT score goes higher. Oftentimes, that money goes to the people who least need it, upper-class people. We [HSU] are rethinking the whole scholarship program.”

Rethinking has already led HSU to match $50 million in scholarships for El Dorado High School graduates. The Murphy Oil Corp., headquartered in El Dorado, recently promised to give $50 million over a 10-year period to help El Dorado grads attend college. Dunn then announced that Henderson would match the Murphy grants dollar for dollar for the El Dorado students who attend Henderson.

Reaction to the HSU announcement has been mostly positive, Dunn said, admitting that there have been “a couple of negatives.” He said he had no doubt of the legality of the program. At least one person — probably more — has wondered about the legality question. An Arkansas Times reader said in an e-mail: “How can a state arbitrarily decide to offer scholarships to students from one high school? … [T]hat seems like it unfairly tilts the doling out of scholarships in one group’s favor. At a publicly funded university?”

Dunn said, “Our university counsel thinks the board has the authority to do this. We give all kinds of scholarships. We give scholarships to kids with good genetics who can do well on tests.”

A spokesman for the state Department of Higher Education said that Henderson’s new program didn’t affect the state financial-aid programs administered by DHE and wouldn’t be challenged by DHE as long as that was true. If a question was raised about the HSU program’s effect on state programs, the question would be referred to the attorney general, she said. DHE doesn’t have a lawyer of its own.

Dunn said HSU was inspired by the Murphy gift. The rising cost of higher education makes scholarships even more important, he said. “Ten years ago, the state of Arkansas provided 53 percent of our budget. This year, it’s 43 percent. That’s about $4 million less from the state, and that difference is made up by tuition and fee income. Students today bear a much higher burden of the cost.”

Dunn said he hoped the new program would attract more students from El Dorado to Henderson, which is 83 miles away. “We’ve had a close relationship with the people from El Dorado for a long time. A lot of their teachers attended Henderson.”

Henderson has an enrollment of 3,600.

At least one other Arkansas university has acted to maximize the benefits of the Murphy gift, which is called the “El Dorado Promise” scholarship program: Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia.

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