As college affordability and student debt have grown as nationwide concerns, a Baltimore-based nonprofit has been easing local students' financial troubles for more than 90 years.
Central Scholarship, founded in 1924 and based in Owings Mills, strives to make college more affordable for low-income families in Maryland. For each of the last five years, the organization has provided more than $1 million in assistance with about two-thirds grant money and one-third interest-free loans.
On Wednesday evening, more than 250 students, donors and supporters of Central Scholarship gathered to celebrate another year's work – and also to give one lucky student a $30,000 loan forgiveness scholarship.
Angela Anthony of Warwick in Cecil County won the $30,000 scholarship. The first-generation college student is finishing a masters program in international development at Eastern University in Pennsylvania.
Since she was an undergraduate, Anthony said, she has worked 20 to 30 hours per week as a hostess at a truck stop, as a van driver and as a barista. "I have loans now," she says. "This [award] will be a huge help."
Anthony was just one of the many students the organization reaches. In 2015, they helped 332 students, according to the organization.
For those students, the support can play a crucial role in attending college, said Jan Wagner, president of Central Scholarship.
"It's really the difference between not going and going, or on the other end, it may be the difference between finishing a degree and not finishing," Wagner said.
That was the case for Raymond Major, who won the last year's random drawing for $30,000. He said it changed his life instantly, wiping out virtually all his student debt right after graduating.
"That's the worst thing about debt," Major said. "When you have debt that's so high, you have to look for certain jobs instantly. Money becomes a huge thing."
Major graduated in 2014 from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County with a bachelor's degree in information systems. The Highlandtown resident was the first in his family to graduate from a four-year college. With less financial stress now, he hopes to be a software engineer.
About 43 million people nationwide – about 13 percent of the entire country – owe more than $1.3 trillion in student debt, higher than both U.S. credit card and auto loan debt. More than 7 million student borrowers are now in default.
National politics has taken notice. The Democratic and Republican parties both addressed the issue in their platforms, which were approved earlier this month during their conventions.
The Democratic platform argued for more refinancing options, lower federal interest rates and broader income-based repayment plans for students. The Republican platform called the cost of college on "an unsustainable trajectory" and sought the government to back away from providing student loans and, instead, leave that to the private sector.
Wagner said her organization doesn't care about the political sides of the issue – they are just interested in any solutions that help students afford higher education.
"We would really be supportive of any proposal, Democratic or Republican, that seeks to close the gap for poor kids in the country," Wagner said.
Until then, the organization will keep doing what it has done since the 1920s, when it focused on helping orphans get an education. Wagner said student loan debt can impact people's abilities to buy a home, start a family or save for retirement.
While at college, the financial stress causes many low-income students to work part-time.
"They may be challenged academically, not because they're not smart, but in a sense they've been cheated so you put them on a college campus and force them to work a lot of hours."
With a modest endowment, the organization is dependent every year on individual donors.
Wagner said they fund about 10 percent of students that apply.
A long-term donation from Ira and Marcia Wagner, no relation to Jan Wagner, provided major funding for scholarship support through 2024, when the nonprofit turns 100 years old.
That money supports the loan forgiveness scholarship that Anthony won Wednesday night. Ira Wagner, who is also chair of the nonprofit's board, said he was attracted to establish a scholarship fund initially in 2007 in a way to pay it forward.
"I'm all about education and opportunity for kids," Ira Wagner said. "I believe in paying it forward and trying to help other kids who may not have as much luck as I have had or my kids have had."