Thanks to a $100 payment made almost 150 years ago by her great-great-grandfather, Northwestern junior Barrett Bridenhagen will graduate next spring without ever having paid a cent of tuition to the University.
"I feel like a ghost from the past reached out to give me this gift," says Bridenhagen, who is just one of nearly 350 students in the University's 150 years to attend Northwestern on a perpetual scholarship.
Sold from 1853 to 1867 for $100, perpetual scholarships entitled their buyers free tuition for all direct male descendants in perpetuity. After the University opened its doors to women in 1869, the provisions of the scholarship were broadened to include female heirs.
According to University archivist Patrick Quinn, most of the buyers were prosperous Methodist farmers and small business owners who bought the scholarships from early University leaders such as Clark Hinman and Philo Judson, both of whom traveled the Midwest on horseback peddling the scholarships.
Proceeds from the scholarships, then an important source of income, were used to fund the construction of buildings. In all about $75,000 was raised through their sale.
Fewer and fewer of the free-tuition certificates are being used today because of the passage of time and strict regulations on their use. As of 1960, 341 scholarships had been issued, but only a few families have managed to keep them active since then. Bridenhagen, a philosophy major from Sister Bay, Wis., is the only current Northwestern student still on a perpetual scholarship.
"Even now, from time to time, people will find these things in their attics and try to cash them in," Quinn says. "It's like finding a winning lottery ticket. There are hundreds still out there, but most of them have some problem that makes them invalid."
The most common of those problems is the failure of the original and subsequent owners to specifically bequeath the scholarship to a descendant in a will, as required by Office of Financial Aid guidelines set down in 1959.
Also, as the original contracts state: "[The scholarship] does not waive the necessity of passing satisfactory entrance requirements or conforming in all respects with the University's admission requirements." In other words, even with the scholarship in hand, you still need the grades and the test scores to be accepted into Northwestern.
The 1959 guidelines also clarify that only one family member per generation may use the scholarship and that the student must still pay room, board and other fees.
Even so, with tuition costs at Northwestern now totaling almost $25,000 a year, receiving a perpetual scholarship is truly comparable to hitting it big in the lottery.
Bridenhagen has her great-great-grandfather Efraim Wheeler, a farmer from Elk Grove Township, Ill., to thank for her free college ride; he purchased the scholarship in 1855. Strangely enough, however, Bridenhagen is the first person in her family's long lineage to use the scholarship.
On a tip from her grandmother, she located and contacted her first cousin twice removed, Cherie-Marie Bjustrom (WCAS40), who still had the original parchment document that was bought by Wheeler. After painstakingly researching the history of the scholarship with Quinn and University lawyers, the family made arrangements for Bjustrom to properly bequeath the scholarship to Bridenhagen, thus making her eligible to use it.
"I figured that the prospect of saving $100,000 over four years might be worth a little paperwork and some investigating," Bridenhagen says.
But in spite of that six-figure cost to the University, officials aren't discounting the perpetual scholarships' importance in keeping the fledgling school afloat during the mid-1800s.
"Even the 350 of these perpetual scholarships that have been cashed in over the years amount to small potatoes when compared with their financial impact on the school during its early years," Quinn says. "Without perpetual scholarships, Northwestern might not be here today."
Ed Fanselow, a junior in the Medill School of Journalism, is an editorial assistant for Northwestern magazine.