The college scholarship secret hiding in plain sight: your last name

Derek Gatlin and his daughter, with NC State mascot Mr. Wuf. Gatlin ended up at the Raleigh school largely because of the Gatling Grant. (Ann Gatlin)
Derek Gatlin and his daughter, with NC State mascot Mr. Wuf. Gatlin ended up at the Raleigh school largely because of the Gatling Grant. (Ann Gatlin)


Students who can trace their lineage to specific individuals—or just happen to have the same surname—stand to benefit from potentially thousands of dollars in scholarships.

Derek Gatlin discovered the value of his last name during middle-school detention.

A teacher urged him to get serious about school so he could land a special college scholarship. He wouldn’t need a 4.0 grade-point average, athletic accolades or a musical skill. He just needed to be a Gatlin. (Or, he later learned, a Gatling.)

Gatlin didn’t know what the teacher was talking about, but he liked the idea of being the first in his family to go to college.

In 2001, as Gatlin entered his senior year, the scholarship offer arrived. He received a letter from North Carolina State University, about 2,800 miles from home in Olivehurst, Calif., noting his strong SAT score—and his last name. It said if he was admitted, his tuition costs would be covered.

“It was the golden ticket, like in ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,’" Gatlin recalls. “Then I asked: Where is Raleigh, North Carolina?"

Quirky scholarship opportunities abound these days. Funds are set aside for golf caddies, tall children and even those with notable duck-calling abilities.

But some scholarships boast other unique criteria. Namely, names.

Calling Dudleys

Descendants of major donors or graduates have long enjoyed an edge in admissions at many colleges. But legacy preference reaches even further at some schools, with money available for people who can trace their lineage directly to specific individuals, or who just happen to have the same last name.

Loyola University Chicago offers scholarships to Catholic students with the last name Zolp. A University of California scholarship gives preference to graduate students from Colombia and direct descendants from the family of the benefactor, Miguel Velez. 

Among more than a half-dozen “ancestry-based scholarships," as Harvard University labels them, is one for descendants of Thomas Dudley, who served as governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony in the 1600s.

If the donors want to claim charitable deductions on their taxes, university fundraisers say, they have to make clear that lineage is just a preference, not an outright requirement. That way, the money will still be used when no namesakes are selected, and donors steer clear of what the IRS calls “private benefit."

The University of Maine currently has 38 scholarships with stated preferences for descendants of a particular individual or family.

Sarah McPartland-Good, general counsel at the University of Maine Foundation, says while she could understand concern about these types of scholarships perpetuating privilege among a small class of families, the list of recipients demonstrates otherwise. This year, two-thirds were awarded to nondescendants.

Texas A&M University covers most of the cost of attendance for students with the last name Scarpinato, courtesy of a gift from a 1934 graduate with that name. The school can only give the money to another student with financial need if it’s gone 12 consecutive years without a Scarpinato.

What’s a Leavenworth worth?

One early-2000s Harvard graduate with the last name Downer discovered the moniker was anything but. He got wind of his potential windfall soon after being admitted, when his grandmother handed over a 1980s news clipping detailing the Charles Downer Scholarship Fund.

“She’d saved it all those years and never mentioned it, holding onto it on the off-chance that her little Black grandson from West Baltimore made it to Harvard," he recalls. “I was floored."

First preference for the scholarship favors Downers who are descendants of Joseph or Robert Downer of Wiltshire, England, followed by others with that surname, followed by descendants of the Harvard class of 1889.

One of the most enduring surname scholarships originates from Elias Leavenworth, a lawyer and New York politician who could trace his U.S. roots to the late 1600s.

He detailed his scholarship plans in an 1873 letter, having grown concerned that future generations of his family may not contribute enough to society. Through his will, he established scholarships at Yale University and Hamilton College.

They’ve sometimes struggled to find Leavenworths.

Yale placed advertisements in New York and Hartford, Conn., newspapers, inviting men with the last name Leavenworth to apply, according to an April 1938 article in the Yale Daily News.

“It seems that no Leavenworth can be found in the student body and, in this embarrassing predicament, the scholarship requires advertising," the student paper wrote. “All Yalemen who are contemplating changing their name in order to capture this award are cautioned that such a procedure would be frowned upon by authorities, although the legality of the action is possibly beyond reproach."

Nearly 20 years ago, hoping to drum up interest in the scholarship, a Hamilton administrator sent a PowerPoint pitch to a Leavenworth family reunion in Kansas.

Hamilton last awarded a Leavenworth scholarship to a Leavenworth in 2015. Before that, the most recent went to Benjamin Leavenworth, who graduated in 1994. Unrelated students with financial need received the awards in other years.

Benjamin Leavenworth says he knew about the opportunity since he was in elementary school. His father and grandfather both received Leavenworth scholarships to attend Yale, and the financial aid at Hamilton—which he says covered more than half his costs—played a big role when he chose to attend.

Derek Gatlin, the California native who graduated from NC State in 2009, can thank Raleigh businessman and 1921 NC State graduate John Gatling for his college education.

So can Derek Gatling, a 1991 graduate who now serves as a pastor at the First Baptist Church of Jericho in New Jersey. Both Dereks met their wives at school, too.

John Gatling’s 1959 will limited the scholarships to white students, but the school sued in 1977 to remove the discriminatory restrictions—and thus made Derek Gatling eligible. The benefactor said his aim was “to raise the standard of those bearing the Gatling or Gatlin name."

Derek Gatling says he enjoyed meeting other scholarship recipients while a student, but didn’t pry much into how they might be connected.

“We were cousins somewhere, somehow," he says.

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