Sunday, May 27, 2007
Students Take Oilman's Offer
By Tim Korte
The Associated Press
ARTESIA, N.M. Self-made millionaire Mack Chase offered to strike a deal with the graduating class of the town's only high school: If any of the 210 seniors wanted to go to college, the New Mexico oilman would pony up $1 million to pay some of the costs.
Chase has found plenty of takers 139 students, including about 40 who probably wouldn't have been able to afford college otherwise.
"You guys have been given a gift. That's what it is a gift," Artesia High School senior class counselor Kristy Montoya told students during an award ceremony last week.
There was so much interest, in fact, that the need-based scholarships will cost Chase close to $1.5 million, more than the $1 million pledge he made two months ago when the program was announced.
In return, Chase and his wife, Marilyn, asked for two things: Students must promise to earn their degrees and, years from now, to strive as adults to provide the same opportunities to another generation. There's also some fine print during four years of college, the students must maintain a 2.5 grade-point average while taking at least 12 credit hours per semester.
"The goal is to get as many kids as possible to go off, graduate and come back to Artesia and be productive citizens," Chase Foundation director Richard Price said.
Education experts say these kinds of scholarships, financed by wealthy philanthropists, are rare, scattered around the United States. However, they have increased over the past two decades.
Most programs are patterned after the I Have a Dream Foundation, established in 1981 by New York businessman Eugene Lang, who promised to pay college tuition for a class of sixth-graders at his old school if they stayed in high school and graduated.
More recently, the Kalamazoo Public Schools in Michigan promised to pay tuition for its students at public in-state universities or community colleges, and an oil company in El Dorado, Ark., made a similar pledge for this year's graduating class.
Don Heller, an associate professor of education at Penn State who specializes in college access issues, said there hasn't been any reliable research to determine exactly how many participants of such programs finish college.
But it's not enough to just throw money at college-bound high school seniors. He said they need to start getting ready for college years before then.
"The research we do know says it's important to prepare them academically for college, not just financially," he said. "If they wait until they're in college to backfill the academics, a lot of these kids aren't going to be successful."
It's impossible to know how many scholarship students will return to their hometowns after college. Some of the Artesia graduates said they expect to live elsewhere, but most simply didn't know.
That won't stop Chase from trying to help his hometown. Artesia, with about 11,000 residents, has only one high school.
The Chase scholarships provide up to $2,500 at New Mexico universities, but some students receive less. Each in-state school and seven West Texas colleges agreed to provide matching funds not necessarily dollar-for-dollar.
Price said during its short life, the Chase program already offers the largest renewable scholarships ever awarded in New Mexico.
"It's going to be a big help," said Brent Umphlett, who will study meteorology at the University of Oklahoma next fall. Asked what he would do without the Chase funds, Umphlett shrugged and said, "Borrow more."
Another recipient, Emilee Duerken, is going to New Mexico State to study communication disorders. "It makes it easier," she said. "You won't have to take out a bunch of loans or worry about working."
Price and other Artesia residents described Chase as big-hearted and sentimental.
That was confirmed when the seniors lined up to present a crystal vase as a show of gratitude. Chase hugged and shook hands with each one, wiping away tears as he daubed his nose with a handkerchief.
Price also cautioned that Chase is a man who shuns the spotlight.
Later, Chase agreed to a brief interview. Asked why he decided to spend his fortune in this way, his eyes welled and his bottom lip shook. He turned to Price and asked, "You want to answer that, Richard?"
"I can tell you exactly how he'd answer that," Price replied. "He grew up in this community. He played Bulldog football. Mack grew up struggling a little bit, but he worked his way through that. He got up to the top, but he never forgot his roots.
"Artesia and the youth of Artesia mean a lot to Mack. He wants to give something back, to give them opportunities he didn't have when he was a young man," Price said.
Chase then gave a firm nod of agreement.
"Yep, you did real good," he told Price.
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