BY ERIN ARCHERD
This weekend Dean Kagan unveiled the new Public Service Initiative Program to support students planning to work in public interest after graduation; if Harvard Law students agree to take public interest jobs for five years after they graduate, their third year tuition will be completely forgiven. Plus, students will still be eligible for the Low Income Protection Plan, LIPP.
She first made a “secret” announcement Saturday morning to a group of hundreds of alumni at the Celebration of Public Interest Conference, and again Monday during a speech to admitted students. The school released the information to the New York Times on Tuesday.
“I want all of our students to have the ability to make public service their first choice after law school,” said Kagan. “We have tried in many ways to make this choice easier, particularly for students who have accumulated significant debt in college and law school. This initiative, which effectively provides a $40,000-plus grant to all our public service-oriented students, is the next big step toward giving our students greater career choices. There is no better time to announce it than now – following our first-ever Celebration of Public Interest.”
The five-year pilot program that begins in fall 2008 will allow students to ceremonially commit to public interest by signing a letter during the fall of their first or second year, but the real commitment will come through earning public service activity credits and singing a promissory note during 3L year. Once the note is signed, students receive a grant for one year’s tuition, set at $41,500 for next year. Current 1Ls and 2Ls are eligible for smaller third-year tuition grants of $10,000 and $5,000 respectively.
By and large, 3Ls were enthusiastic about the new program, and stoic about their ineligibility for the larger grants.”Of course I’m sad to miss the boat, but the Initiative is impressive and represents another strong step forward in Harvard’s goal to fully support students entering the public interest field,” said 3L Rob Cacace.
” I think it’s fantastic that the law school is stepping up its commitment to make public service a possibility for more HLS students,” said 3L Molly Thomas-Jensen.
“I think that the Initiative shows HLS’s commitment to not only encouraging public service, but to also making it a more economically feasible option for law students saddled with education debt,” said 3L Lauren Michaels. “One of my primary reasons for choosing HLS was the many public interest opportunities we have here, including OPIA, SPIF, and LIPP. The Initiative will encourage even more public interest-minded students to choose HLS, and for more HLS students to choose to go in to public service after graduation. Even though I can’t take advantage of the program as a 3L, I think it’s a great thing for individual students, for public interest at HLS generally, and, most importantly, for those who will benefit from the work of our public interest graduates.”
1Ls and 2Ls are still uncertain as to how the Initiative should and will affect them.
“I think it’s a great idea, although I don’t think that I’m likely to take advantage of the 5K grant, since it’s just not that much of a benefit for so long a commitment,” said 2L Samantha Crane.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but all current law students should have the opportunity to qualify for waiver of the full 3L tuition amount,” 2L Sarah Rodriguez said.
At least one 1L plans on taking a partial tuition grant.
“I think the initiative is a great idea because debt is such an issue for those planning to go into public service work,” explained 1L Nicole Flores. “It’s too bad that current students won’t be able to take advantage of the full program, but I will be happy with the partial grants since LIPP will remain unchanged.”
A 10-week summer public service job is a required activity for the tuition waiver. Other activities include clinicals, public service community events, and an optional second summer public interest job. Summer Public Interest Funding, SPIF, will still be available.
The activity credit system is still being worked out, but Director of Student Financial Services Ken Lafler said that the initiative is meant to be flexible.
“We could have had rigid criteria,” he said. “But there are many routes to public service, and different kinds of people.”Qualifying jobs for the new initiative are different from those for LIPP. Graduates must work at a 501(c)(3), or its overseas equivalent, or on a political campaign.
Private sector, academia, and self-employment do not qualify. A one-year clerkship will also qualify, but only if the graduate takes a public interest position afterward. If graduates clerk for two years, they must then work for four more years of public service after their second clerkship year.
The job eligibility range is deliberately much narrower than LIPP’s low-income requirement.
“This is a public service program,” explained Lafler. “LIPP is a career choice program. It’s intended to allow people to take a job regardless of the income, including private sector jobs. This has a more narrow definition to encourage people to take public interest jobs.”
Graduates may receive one year of parental leave during the program, but that time will not count toward the five-year commitment. However, parents with children not yet “of age to enter ninth grade who work at least half-time will accrue time toward the five year commitment at the full time rate,” according to the Student Financial Service’s website.
Those who drop out of the program during their first year out of law school must pay back 110% of the grant at above-market interest rates. The amount decreases 10% each year, with 70% of the grant payable by those who leave public interest their fifth year after graduation.
The effect this new initiative will have on attracting students to the law school is unclear, though Larry Kramer, Dean of Stanford Law School, told the New York Times that the program “is an interesting move,” but that compared to other loan repayment assistance programs, “[i]t’s unclear whether it is more generous.”
The number of students in the Class of ’03 working in government or nonprofit jobs is approximately 10-12%. Dean Kagan admitted to the public interest alumni this weekend that Harvard can, and will, do better.
The law school estimates this program will cost over $3 million over the program’s first five years, and plans to support the Initiative with a release of funds from the endowment. The law school’s endowment currently stands at more than $1.7 billion, an impressive figure, but a small fraction of the university’s $34.9 billion endowment.
Students who would like more details about the program can visit Student Financial Services or go to http://www.law.harvard.edu/students/sfs/psi/.
Andrea Saenz contributed to the reporting of this article.