For more than a century Dartmouth College has been making good on a promise to students from a hardscrabble Vermont town that helped the keep the school afloat in its early years: get in, and your tuition is free.

But in that time only nine students from the town of Wheelock have taken advantage of the offer of a tuition-free Ivy League education for students from the community in the heart of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom.

Noah Manning, a 20-year-old starting his third year at Dartmouth, is the fourth Wheelock student to take the scholarship in the last half-century.

"I had always heard about it," said Manning. "In like the third grade, I wasn't quite focused on college yet, but I definitely knew about it."

Dartmouth's quirky gift is well known to locals — it's even a selling point used by local real estate agents, Wheelock Town Clerk Doug Reid said — and there's discussion about expanding the town-gown relationship even more.

In July, Manning invited Dartmouth's president to Wheelock where he toured the town hall and met with the three members of the select board.

"Everybody was in agreement that we want to pursue a wider and deeper relationship between the town and the college," Reid said.

Some of the preliminary ideas being considered include having Dartmouth engineering students help design renovations to the 140-year-old town hall or having medical students work with the community's elderly and infirm.

"The Wheelock Scholarship remains a point of historic pride for the college today as evidenced by President Phil Hanlon's recent visit to Wheelock to discuss ways in which Dartmouth and the town might expand their relationship," the college said in a statement.

Dartmouth was founded in 1769 as an institution to educate Native Americans. In 1785, the Vermont Legislature granted Dartmouth 23,000 acres of land in a town it named Wheelock, after Dartmouth founder Eleazar Wheelock, and in its early years the college helped support itself with money from rent and goods the town produced.

It's unclear how the free tuition offer came to be, but the legend is that it happened during the 1830s when then-Dartmouth President Nathan Lord was in Wheelock collecting rent. He is believed to have quipped "Anytime anybody wants to go to Dartmouth, send him down."

Ozias D. Mathewson, Dartmouth class of 1890, was the first to take advantage of the offer. Forty years later, it was formalized.

"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," Dartmouth President Ernest Hopkins wrote in 1930. The offer was later amended to include Wheelock's daughters.

In some ways Dartmouth's offer has become a quaint symbol of cooperation from a bygone era rather than a way to lift students from poverty. Dartmouth — where this year's tuition is $48,120 — is free for students from families making $100,000 per year or less.

Most college scholarships — including every other one Dartmouth offers — are based on need. But there are other examples where location is the prime factor: students from Colorado's Las Animas County, for example, can have tuition and fees at Princeton University covered by the Mary John Goree Scholarship, set up to encourage students there to strive for the Ivy League.

Manning, whose father arrived in Wheelock in 1975 as part of a back-to-the-land movement, has his sights set on a career in medicine. A list he has assembled of the Wheelock scholars shows that seven never returned to the area after graduating from Dartmouth.

He could be different.

"I don't think by any stretch of the truth I am opposed to living in the community," said Manning who is interested in rural primary care medicine. "I don't fully know where life will take me."


AP Reporter Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.