When Chaz Arnett was figuring out how to continue paying for Morehouse College 16 years ago, all his grandmother had to send him on his way was a plane ticket and a prayer.
And after Mayumy Rivera's freshman year at St. Mary's College of Maryland four years ago, she was shocked when her scholarship well went dry the following year.
But Arnett, a Southwest Baltimore native who went on to obtain a law degree from Harvard University, and Rivera, an immigrant from El Salvador — and as of last Saturday, a graduate of St. Mary's — both shared a secret safety net: the CollegeBound Foundation.
The Baltimore-based nonprofit organization, which has helped 60,000 low-income city students pay for college, is celebrating its largest single donation in its 28-year history. Local philanthropists Mark and Patricia Joseph announced the $3.5 million donation to CollegeBound on Tuesday.
The foundation will use $3 million from the gift to double the number of students who will receive grants to pay off their tuition bills. The remaining $500,000 will allow the organization to expand its services to include more advising in city high schools, and extend its reach to college campuses.
The gift is the latest of more than $10 million the Josephs have invested in institutions serving city students. Other beneficiaries include the nonprofit Thread, Teach for America and several charter schools.
Mark Joseph said city students have held a place in his heart since he served as chair of the city school board from 1975 to 1980. He said his philanthropy stems from the time when he was a young man without much money and a wife and two children to support and a mortgage to pay.
"I've been fortunate enough to be able to give some of the money that we've made over the years away," said the attorney and real estate developer. "We all need whatever help we can get with whatever we're doing."
CollegeBound works exclusively in Baltimore and has helped close a sizable gap between the numbers of low-income students and wealthier students attending college. It works with 14 high schools, providing full-time college advisers and need-based scholarships that have exceeded $1.5 million.
Cassie Motz, CollegeBound's executive director, called the Josephs' gift an "extraordinary investment in the next generation's leaders in Baltimore City."
"This extremely generous gift will go a long way toward closing that gap in Baltimore City," she said.
The bulk of the donation will add 90 students to the 86 students receiving the "last-dollar grants" from the foundation this year. The grants provide students who attend four-year-colleges and are eligible for Pell Grant scholarships up to $3,000 annually for up to five years. The organization has awarded more than $6 million in last-dollar grants to more than 1,881 students in its 28 years.
CollegeBound will use $400,000 to do "targeted counseling" in schools where there may not be an adviser, but which have students with a high chance of successfully graduating from college. And $100,000 will help build a system that will allow CollegeBound to continue advising students who attend Maryland colleges and universities.
The last-dollar grants are a particularly crucial investment because they target low-income students whose other financial aid often falls short of paying all of their college costs. The shortfall is among the drivers for low college completion rates for even the brightest students.
CollegeBound students who have received grants have graduated from four-year colleges at a rate 2.5 times higher than students from similar socio-economic backgrounds, according to the organization.
Rivera, 22, who arrived to Baltimore seven years ago unable to speak English, is a graduate of Patterson High School. She worried she was going to have to take out loans to pay her remaining college costs after the scholarships that got her to college ran out.
"My first year, I thought 'Wow, this is nice, everyone gives you so much money,'" she said. "But the only thing that actually stayed there was CollegeBound."
Arnett, now a visiting professor at the University of Pittsburgh Law School, said after he graduated from Baltimore City College high school and went to college, his family struggled to help him pay for the shortfalls in financial aid.
He recalled how the only people he could call for help paying for Morehouse College was his CollegeBound adviser.
"I recall vividly being on the phone every semester, when there was a question about whether I'd be able to afford the subsequent semester," he said. "The last-dollar grant was crucial."
This article has been updated. An earlier version misstated when Chaz Arnett attended Morehouse College. The Sun regrets the error.