07/24/2000 at 01:00 AM EDT
Until recently, the thought of college was a luxury many teens from Decatur County, Tenn., did not indulge in. Last year only 30 percent of the senior class advanced beyond high school in this rural, economically depressed notch of the Bible Belt, roughly half the national average. Enter James Ayers, a local businessman with a plan—and $350 million made in banking, real estate and nursing homes. Last fall Ayers, 56, launched the Ayers Foundation Scholars Program, which provides up to $4,000 to every graduating senior accepted to college. He also pays for a counselor, who prepares the kids for applying to colleges. "At least 50 percent of this program is counseling and motivation," explains Ayers, a father of two. "So many scholarships are for the straight-A students," adds his wife, Sharon, 46. "This isn't. Even an average student can participate."
The results are remarkable: This year 81 seniors out of 125 are heading for higher ed. At first, many students were skeptical. " 'This is crap,' we all thought," says college-bound Whitnee Pearcy, 18. "But it is real. It's just hard to believe he's doing it."
A lumberman's son who shined shoes as a boy and sold bibles before earning an accounting degree at Memphis State University, Ayers is an avid traveler and hunter—his office sports the head of a 600-lb. antelope shot in Zimbabwe. Inspired by a CNN report about a Texan who made a similar gesture, he hopes his largesse enlarges his beneficiaries' worlds. "You enable people to get outside these communities," Ayers says, "and they realize there's a better quality of life to be lived."