ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Life just changed for many in the tiny Kansas town of Neodesha. A wealthy businessman is hoping to save his shrinking hometown. He's launched a program to pay college tuition for Neodesha's students. The idea takes its cue from bigger cities, but it could hit some unexpected roadblocks. Celia Llopis-Jepsen of the Kansas News Service reports.
CELIA LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Ben Cutler grew up in Neodesha in the 1950s, when it had a thousand more residents than today's 2,300. He left Kansas for a career in finance and insurance but never forgot his hometown, situated about halfway between Wichita, Kan., and Joplin, Mo. And his business success has led to this.
LLOPIS-JEPSEN: That's Neodesha's 300 middle- and high-schoolers in their auditorium recently when they learned Cutler will pay their college tuition. They have to earn a 2.5 GPA and tick other boxes, but the Neodesha promise will cover the price of tuition and fees at the state's priciest public school - the University of Kansas. De'Jua Pouncil is a senior. She wants to study dental hygiene.
DE'JUA POUNCIL: (Laughter) I'm still in shock right now. I've been really saving up for college. I know most of my classmates have been also saving up, working real hard. And this is just a real relief off of our shoulders.
LLOPIS-JEPSEN: The program has two goals - obviously, change lives. Right now, two years after high school, fewer than half of students here are working on a college degree. Second goal - bring people to this rural town. Families need to enroll their kids in school here by the sixth grade to get the full deal. Cutler's offer is good for the next 25 years at least, possibly decades beyond that. It will likely cost tens of millions of dollars.
But here's the problem - bordering school districts have been losing enrollment as well. Two nearby districts have fewer than 200 students left because most of southeast Kansas is shrinking. Neodesha's plan might simply shift people around among dwindling towns. Matthew Sanderson is a sociologist at Kansas State University.
MATTHEW SANDERSON: If you're thinking about the regional economic development, at least at this stage, it looks more like a zero-sum game.
LLOPIS-JEPSEN: To spur real growth, Neodesha has to attract more employers and jobs. And though community leaders say Promise programs elsewhere have benefited economically, they're usually in more populous places like Kalamazoo, Mich. That town has 75,000 residents. Still, hundreds of workers commute to this town every day from across the region for manufacturing jobs at plants like this one - Cobalt Boats, where a team is building the hull of a luxury motorboat.
SHANE STANFILL: So this process just gets repeated. Layer by layer, resin and glass are applied.
LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Company president Shane Stanfill says now maybe more of his workers will move to town to take advantage of the free tuition, and others would follow.
STANFILL: And with that, they'll need jobs, and that will also help us to get, you know, find the right people to work for us.
LLOPIS-JEPSEN: But aspiring residents may need to get in line. Neodesha's other big challenge is a housing shortage, a common issue across rural America. Funder Ben Cutler says the town is ready for the hard work.
BEN CUTLER: I don't think any of us that are - have been working on this scholarship program now - I've been working on it for a couple of years - think that this is going to be easy. This is going to require some heavy lifting on the part of the school, on the part of the community, on the part of the businesses here.
LLOPIS-JEPSEN: Meanwhile, Matthew Sanderson says he's curious to see if Neodesha can pull something off beyond the usual zero-sum game - a town this small trying to reinvent itself with this incentive.
For NPR News, I'm Celia Llopis-Jepsen in Neodesha.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.