E&P companies and communities don’t always make the best neighbors. But Murphy Oil Corp., by funding the “El Dorado Promise” scholarship program, is proving that neighborly gestures can make a huge difference.

The program was launched in 2007 and promises to send nearly every student in this small Arkansas town to college for the next 20 years by providing tuition and mandatory fees that can be used at any two-, four-, public, or private institution in the US. The maximum amount payable is up to the highest resident tuition at an Arkansas public university.

More recently the program was expanded to allow more flexibility for students and families by allowing students with scholarships or grants to apply for funds to be used for other college expenses such as room, board, books, and additional fees.

The program is the brainchild of Claiborne Deming, Murphy’s recently retired CEO and president. Seeing the signs of a town in collapse – closing businesses, declining population, young people moving away – he felt compelled to come up with a “pretty bold” plan to turn things around. Bold indeed – he created a $50 million endowment to cover tuition for the town’s college attendees for the next two decades.

In the program’s second year, 312 students are attending college, funded by $2.1 million donated by Murphy. The promise of a college education, just a pipe dream to many students prior to the promise, is paying dividends for the high school and the town.

“Since 2007 school enrollment has increased, reversing a 20-year decline,” reported an article about the promise that ran in People magazine earlier this year, “and an astounding 95% of this year’s seniors say they plan to go to college, a big leap from the 60% rate that held steady for years.”

The article also mentions that despite the rocky economy, El Dorado residents have approved higher taxes to fund a new high school and promote economic development. Arkansas voters also passed a ballot approving a state lottery. Proceeds will fund scholarships for the state’s high school graduates.

Information from www.eldoradopromise.com adds that families from 28 states and 10 foreign countries have relocated to El Dorado to give their kids the same opportunity as the locals.

Overall, the positive outcome of the program seems to extend far beyond the free college ride. Community response has been very positive, and the housing market is benefitting from the influx of families from other places.

At a time when companies are scaling back on their expenses, laying people off, and generally acting like hibernating bears, it’s nice to see one company step up to the plate and make an investment for the longer term.