One year ago, I sat alongside hundreds of my future Harvard Law School classmates at Admitted Students Weekend. I was excited to come to law school and to learn how to further social justice in the law; but the economic reality of law school did not seem compatible with that goal— at least for someone like me. Without generations of wealth as a safety net, I would have to take out nearly $150,000 in “base loan[s]” to even have access to grant aid. Such an obligation made it seem unrealistic, to say the least, for me to use my legal education to fight for access to justice or against racial discrimination.
Then, during ASW, I learned about Harvard’s Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP), a loan repayment assistance program aimed at addressing the stifling debt burdens which prevent students from taking lower-paying legal jobs, the vast majority of which are in public service. In Harvard’s own words, taking these jobs “might not be feasible without loan repayment assistance,” and this statement rings especially true for many first generation and low-income students like me. When I heard about LIPP, I felt reassured that I wouldn’t have to face my mountain of debt alone, and that Harvard would support me in pursuing my chosen career.
The reality is more complicated than that.
Last October, 175 HLS alumni who have lived on LIPP penned an open letter to describe how, even with support from the program, they struggled to make their student loan payments. The alumni noted that Harvard is falling behind our peer institutions in supporting graduates working in government and nonprofit sectors — for instance, a public interest lawyer making $70,000 per year would have an annual loan payment of “$8,000 if she went to HLS, $4,750 if she went to Stanford, $3,750 if she went to Yale, and $0 if she went to NYU.”
In response to this letter, a group of HLS students and alumni came together to form the Coalition to Improve LIPP. After months of meetings with the Student Financial Services office, conducting a school-wide student survey, and refining our ideas, the Coalition — supported by 38 HLS student organizations, including Student Government — published a letter to Dean Manning calling for specific LIPP policy changes. These proposals would make LIPP more responsive to realities like the ever-increasing undergraduate debt burden of incoming 1Ls, the need to move between jobs, and the rising cost of family care.
HLS currently touts the flexibility of the LIPP program. However, over the course of ten years in the program, LIPP participants are only allowed eight weeks of transition time between jobs. For early career lawyers, who move frequently between fellowships, clerkships, and jobs, these eight weeks are woefully inadequate. Under the Coalition to Improve LIPP’s proposed changes, the “base” amount of transition time would increase to twelve weeks and LIPP participants would earn two additional weeks of transition time for every six months they remain in the program.
The Coalition’s proposals would increase both the dependent care allowance and the allowance for childcare expenses to account for the rapidly rising costs of childcare. The proposals would also make LIPP’s parental leave policy more universal by extending the program to include personal and familial medical leave and by eliminating the requirement that participants return to the same employer after their leave ends.
In response to rising law school debt, which reached $160,000 for the average HLS graduate in 2017, the Coalition also recommends raising the floor for participant contributions. Under the Coalition’s plan, participants would only make loan repayments on yearly income that exceeds $60,000, rather than the current $47,000 floor— and LIPP participants at all income levels would make smaller payments each month.
Student debt and LIPP have a profound impact on students’ career paths. Nearly three-fourths of the 341 respondents to our student survey claimed that LIPP had some impact on their decision to attend HLS and on their anticipated career choice. Yet nearly one-third of the students surveyed reported that because of debt, they planned to take private sector work rather than public interest positions after graduation. These results highlight how heavily debt weighs on career decisions and demonstrate that LIPP still needs improvement before it can offer true career choice to HLS graduates from all socioeconomic backgrounds.
Admitted Students Weekend is coming again in a few days— and soon after, HLS will celebrate its contributions to public service during the HLS in the Community Bicentennial event. I wish I could approach these milestones with less hesitation, but it can be difficult to take part when your future in the field feels like it’s hanging in the balance.
HLS graduates should not have to choose between public service and financial stability simply because they grew up in a low-income or middle-class family. If Harvard wants to lead in “contributing to communities locally and around the world,” it must strengthen its support for graduates pursuing public interest and lower-paying work. Harvard Law School must recognize LIPP’s shortcomings and enact changes to address them.
I hope that by next admitted students weekend, I’ll be able to say, with full confidence, that no other law school supports its students in pursuing public interest law than does HLS.