of Parsons, Tennessee, has his own tipping point project going
on. Focusing on one small geographic area, Ayers has established
the Ayers Foundation Scholars Program. The program provides
up to $4,000 for four years to every Decatur County student
who has been accepted into college. This is enough to cover
tuition at every Tennessee state university. Unlike many scholarship
programs, all students who graduate high school and are accepted
into college may participate, and there are no grade-point
average requirements. "He has promised that no student from
Decatur County-one of the state's poorest areas-will be denied
a post-secondary education because of a lack of funding,"
explains Ellen Lehman of the Community Foundation of Middle
Tennessee, which helped Ayers establish the program.
Launched in the fall of 1999, Ayers' program
has already produced dramatic changes. In 1999, about 30%
of the county's graduating seniors went on to higher education.
Within one year, that figure had jumped to 65%. "We will
start our fourth class this fall," Ayers says. "We cover
two-year community colleges, as well as four-year colleges,
universities, and state technical schools." The success
of this program has convinced Ayers, the program's sole
funder, to expand the scholarship program to other lowincome
One reason for the program's effectiveness
is that it pays the salaries of two full-time counselors
and one assistant, who work with students at the county's
two high schools. The counselors not only help students
figure out which courses they need to prepare for college,
but also walk students and families through the application
process and help them land additional scholarships (which
are needed if students are accepted at private colleges).
They also help solve other problems as they occur.
The potential impact on this tiny county
will be felt for generations to come. The entire county
is home to just 10,000 people, and in 1997 the per capita
income was about $20,000. In the past, college was not an
option for most Decatur County graduates because their families
couldn't afford it. Ayers hopes that will change. "The best
way I know to improve a large group's standard of living
is by increasing their level of formal education," he says.
"In general, the more formal education people have, the
better living they are able to provide for their families."
Ayers, a Decatur County resident, believes
in giving close to home where he can see the direct results
of his gift. His advice to other potential philanthropists
is this: "Find a cause that you are passionate about and,
when you write a check, stay close to the money. Try to
see with your own eyes where the benefit is being done.
That will make you want to do that much more."
© 1990-2005, More Than Money, All rights reserved