Making college possible Financing: A little-known, privately endowed loan service has made college dreams come true for thousands of Maryland students.

August 20, 1996|By Ernest F. Imhoff | Ernest F. Imhoff,SUN STAFF

Brian Cochran collected a string of scholarships, grants and loans to attend Loyola College but still was missing $3,000 to cover the first year's cost of almost $20,000.

"We were in a pinch," Cochran said of his financial plight two years ago. He had financial aid from seven sources, including Loyola and the Marine Corps (his father, Robert, a car mechanic, was a Marine), but he still came up short. Older brother Kevin was in college.

Their mother, Jean, a middle school cook, heard about the Central Scholarship Bureau. Brian and Jean went to the bureau's tiny office at 4001 Clark's Lane in Pikesville and discovered one of Baltimore's little gems of a secret.

With almost no publicity and advertising, the home-grown service has given interest-free loans totaling $4,223,942 to about 5,000 Maryland students, middle class and below, since 1924. It is a last-resort source of post-secondary school financing, considered unmatched in Maryland.

"I brought a budget, good grades from Dulaney [High School], the federal aid forms and other material," Cochran recalled of his meeting with Central Scholarship. "Roberta Goldman, a counselor, asked me questions and made out her own budget. Then she said, 'We'll loan you $2,500 the first year. Is that OK?' "

Brian and Jean were floored. "We were amazed at their generosity and how agreeable and fast they were," he said. He entered Loyola and since then, received further loans of $2,500 and $1,000, payable five years after school. The loans were crucial, especially after Brian's father died last year.

"If it weren't for the bureau, I might not be at Loyola," said Brian, now a junior and a business major specializing in finance with a grade point average of 3.9 last semester. "It's amazing so few people know about this place."

After 72 years, the bureau remains a quiet, independent institution, free of support from government, corporations or large foundations. Instead, it relies on hundreds of "friends."

The rather mundane name and several operating conditions are unchanged since 1924.

Its endowment is $1 million. This is mainly in the form of 400 funds set up by individuals and families, almost all Baltimoreans. Dues of $25, $35 or other voluntary sums also are paid by bureau members, a support group. The bureau has $1,289,266 in circulating loans not yet repaid.

At first, the service was exclusively for Jewish students, but in 1936 was opened to all. Its funds, with limits for individuals, are mostly designed for general use, but several focus on groups such as art or medical students, minorities or disabled students.

Students have repaid 98 percent of the loans. The repayment time is five years after graduation but recipients now often take up to 10 years because of tighter economic times. The bureau is flexible on repayments but this increased indebtedness is a key issue facing the board of 30 Baltimoreans, said Steven T. Himmelrich, board president.

The bureau's work has created a family of "friends" including donors and recipients over the years.

"The students are so thankful," said Helen London, executive director since 1990. "They become board members, they donate money, they start new funds, they becomes members. Students from the 1920s and 1930s still give."

It has helped some famous people, such as actors Michael Tucker (the former "L. A. Law" attorney) and Andre De Shields, and many future doctors, lawyers and business people.

Marilyn Leuthold, associate registrar of Towson State University, said the nonprofit group is a rarity in American education financing because of its lack of interest requirements and its generous terms.

"I've worked with Towson students from throughout the country and I've never heard of a similar organization," she said.

As Towson's financial aid officer for 12 years, Leuthold has referred up to 100 students a year to "those marvelous people" at the bureau. "Education is a very cheap investment for the good of the country and they are very involved in this community. They're so kind and compassionate," Leuthold said. London and Goldman, aided by three others, work Tuesday through Thursday, interviewing more than 1,000 students a year. They counsel as well as loan money.

"We're not very exciting, doing the same thing for many years as 'that nice little agency,' " London said. "But we make a difference in people's lives. It's not just getting them through the day, but making a life for them."

The bureau began after the Hebrew Orphan Asylum closed here in 1921. Some funds were left over. About 25 Jewish friends, led by businessman Moses Rothschild, decided to help needy Jewish students by lending them interest-free money as a last-resort source.

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