Financial aid increase makes up for Harvard’s Public Service Initiative cut

BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS

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The very visible decline of the Harvard endowment has had notable impacts in all sectors of the university, and the law school has been no exception. From the unfortunate layoffs of staff to the uncertainty regarding free coffee, Harvard Law School students have had the woes created by the frigid job market compounded by a sense that the economic crisis was permeating all corners of academic life.

And not long after the installation of the highest steel of the Northwest Corner project seemed to have dispelled any doubt as to the solidity of the law school’s vision of the future, Dean Martha  Minow announced this week that the university’s financial woes had forced the law school’s administration to discontinue the recently launched Public Service Initiative (PSI) tuition forgiveness program and limit the amount of summer public interest funding (SPIF) available to current students.

But despite the changes announced, representatives of the school’s administration say students should have no doubt that HLS has retained its strong commitment to providing public interest funding to all its students and graduates. Dean Minow’s announcement expressed a shift in strategy to emphasize the Low Income Protection Program (LIPP) as the preferred method of post-graduate public interest funding, indicating that the gross funding of the program had increased by $1.1 million and that eligibility would be extended to unpaid public interest workers, who had previously not qualified.

According to Alexa Shabecoff, head of the Office of Public Interest Advising, the strategy change was necessitated by the double-bind of declining endowment funding and increasing demand for funding due to the troubled job markets. “The world has changed in the last year and a half,” said Shabecoff, who spoke with the Harvard Law Record along with the head of Student Financial Aid, Ken Lafler.

“When the economy is bad,” said Lafler, “there is more need for financial aid.” The result has been a net deficit of $5.2 million for the law school’s existing commitments to provide public interest funding, the combined effect of a $2.5 million decline in endowment funds and a $2.7 million increase in program needs.

According to Lafler, the LIPP program has this year received more applications, only halfway through its fiscal year, than it did during the prior twelve month period. Lafler says this is partly because of the safety net structure of the program itself, which has no requirement for years of service and is designed to allow free movement of alumni in and out of public service positions. With more graduates moving directly into public service after school and a large number of private sector attorneys being forced to pursue alternative pathways, estimating the program’s total costs will be difficult until the job market begins to recover. In fact, the large number of deferred first-year associates exposed the program to a problem of under-inclusiveness which the administration hopes will be adequately addressed by the promise to include unpaid graduates who are at least employed.

But in order to support its expanding commitments under LIPP, the PSI pilot program could not be continued.  Contrary to the facts reported by the Harvard Crimson and widely disseminated in other media, Lafler says that enrollment in the PSI had been in line with the administration’s projections of 60 students for the first year and 80 students in the second year, with final enrollment reaching 58 and 73 students respectively. 

Even with the PSI available, some students he advised made the informed choice to accept only LIPP funding, preferring the flexibility of not making a definite commitment under the PSI framework. And although the PSI program helped overcome the psychological aversion to debt, many students have already seen complete protection from exposure to debt payments under LIPP.

Shabecoff, who was involved in the design of the PSI, says the program was also partly an effort to create an annual cohort of students that resembled her alma mater’s Root-Tilden-Kern scholars program, with a kickoff banquet aimed at establishing collegial connections among participants. She remains convinced that the funding available through the LIPP and SPIF programs provide unparalleled opportunities to HLS students and hopes that a new program will be developed that captures the best aspects of the PSI’s design. In the meantime, she is relieved that the new Holmes Fellowship program, providing funding for students pursuing public interest opportunities will provide employment opportunities for a dozen new graduates each year.

For current students, the total evaporation of 1L employment at law firms and the imperilment of 2L opportunities have swelled SPIF applications from 495 students last year to more than 600 this year, an increase of over 20%.  To accommodate the increased volume, the program has been limited to an 8-week funding period, which Shabecoff says was a necessary trade-off in order to protect open access. 

Lafler declined to say that the program would be extended again when the economy recovers, saying only that every dollar available for public interest funding will continue to be directed whatever program is deemed to provide the most benefit to students and graduates.

In a time of severe limitation in private sector employment opportunities, both current and prospective students will be focusing close attention on the funding law schools provide to pursue public interest employment. Both Shabecoff and Lafler urged students to consider the flexible and open structure of the LIPP program as a continued testament to the commitment Harvard has made to provide loan repayment assistance no matter what causes an employed graduate’s financial need.

 

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