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Ivy League Attainable Thanks to Quirky Grants

Dartmouth offers free tuition to children of a rural Vermont town. And Princeton has a scholarship for a poor Colorado county.

October 26, 2003|Wilson Ring | Associated Press Writer

WHEELOCK, Vt. — At first glance, it seems that Dartmouth College's gift to this tiny town cannot possibly be true: Any child from the hardscrabble community of 623 admitted to the Ivy League university can attend tuition free.

There appears to be little to connect the rural town in one of Vermont's poorest counties with the university 70 miles south in Hanover, N.H.

But Dartmouth owes its existence to Wheelock. In gratitude, Dartmouth continues to honor a 175-year-old commitment made when it was a struggling college desperate to feed its students and pay its bills.

"We had no clue," said George Hill, 20, a Dartmouth junior whose family moved to Wheelock seven years ago from Montana without being aware of the gift.

Area real estate agents use Dartmouth's gift as a selling point for property in the community, and educators at the area high school, the Lyndon Institute, dream of Wheelock students bright enough to get in.

But over the generations, only eight children of Wheelock have taken Dartmouth up on the offer. And Dartmouth isn't turning away Wheelock applicants every year. Fewer than 10 Wheelock children graduate from high school every spring.

"A lot of the kids just look at it as an impossibility," Hill said.

He didn't.

"Once I found out I could go tuition free to Dartmouth, I molded my high school [studies] to Dartmouth," Hill said. He played sports, racked up extracurricular activities, took advanced placement courses and kept his nose in his books.

This year alone, his family's choice of homes is saving him $28,965. Total fees are more than $40,000 a year.

"I'm still pinching myself," said Hill's mother, Linda Torrey, a Lyndonville real estate agent.

Don Betterton, director of financial aid at Princeton University in New Jersey, said most scholarships at Ivy League universities are based on need. But there are a number of quirky scholarships similar to Dartmouth's gift to Wheelock.

At Princeton, the Mary John Goree Scholarship goes to any student from Colorado's Las Animas County. Betterton said the scholarship was set up about 50 years ago by a graduate who wanted to encourage students from a poor part of that state to strive for the Ivy League.

"Typically, there's one student in the four classes," Betterton said, including one now.

Wheelock is named for Eleazar Wheelock, who in 1769 founded Dartmouth College on the eastern bank of the Connecticut River. After he died in 1779, his son John, the second president of Dartmouth, was desperate to find a way to keep the school afloat. He asked the Vermont Legislature for help and in 1785, Vermont granted Dartmouth 23,000 acres of land in a town it named Wheelock.

Over the years, Dartmouth collected rents in money and kind from farmers in the town. The story goes that the offer of free tuition was made in the 1830s when Dartmouth President Nathan Lord was in Wheelock collecting rent.

No one knows for sure why or under what circumstances Lord is said to have quipped, " 'Anybody wants to go to Dartmouth, send him down,' " said Philip Mathewson, 91, of Lyndonville. His father, Ozias D. Mathewson, Dartmouth class of 1890, was the first to hold Dartmouth to the then 50-year-old pledge.

In 1930, O. D. Mathewson, then the headmaster of the Lyndon Institute, the private high school in Lyndonville that has prepared all eight Wheelock children for Dartmouth, asked Dartmouth President Ernest Hopkins to put the gift in writing. Hopkins consulted the trustees.

"Grants of full tuition scholarship [will] be made to any son of the town of Wheelock, Vermont, either by birth or residence, who may desire to enter Dartmouth College, who may present adequate preparation and come suitably recommended," Hopkins wrote on May 5, 1930.

The offer would remain open until and unless "a gold mine [or] ... an oil well being discovered in Wheelock, rather than having it remain the somewhat rural community it now is."

Wheelock has remained rural. There is one farm, a gas station and a general store.

"It's inspiring to see people keep their word," said Rick Hilton, a descendant of Eleazar Wheelock and the current headmaster of the Lyndon Institute.

The Dartmouth financial aid office receives several queries a year about the Wheelock scholarship, said Virginia Hazen, Dartmouth financial aid director.

"The number we get who are actually eligible, they wouldn't have to contact us, because if you grow up in Wheelock, you know about it," she said.

Despite the vague residency requirements, the scholarship has never been abused. "We have had some families who said, 'We are moving to Wheelock, Vt., and we want the scholarship.' We've said no," Hazen said.

"The looseness of it has always been a question," she added. "We have always taken the stance that until it gets abused, we aren't going to take any action."

Many townspeople seem awed by the offer.

"I think people know it's there, but it's a very hard college to get into," said Town Clerk Michelle Trottier, whose children are in kindergarten and the third grade.

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