A program that would waive tuition for third-year students at Harvard Law School who commit to working five years in public interest law received an enthusiastic first response—far more so than its optimistic proponents expected.
Over 110 first-year students participated in a non-binding sign-up for the Public Service Initiative at a banquet earlier this month—50 percent over the targeted number, according to Law School Dean Elena Kagan.
The graduating class of 2011 will be the first class eligible to have the full amount of third-year tuition waived under the program.
“On one hand, it’s a little bit scary, but on the other hand, it’s very exciting for me,” said Kagan, who has made the expansion of the Law School’s financial aid program a priority during her deanship.
Historically, 50 to 60 graduates have pursued public service jobs each year.
In 2008, Law School students graduated with an average debt of $109,000, a Law School official said.
Administrators said they hope the public service program will reduce the financial pressure to take lucrative corporate jobs for students interested in lower-paying positions in government and non-profit organizations.
The initiative was originally projected to cost $3 million each year, said Kenneth H. Lafler, director of Student Financial Services at the Law School, in an interview last month. Although Lafler cautioned that these 113 students only signed an expression of interest, the program may need a larger budget than expected if their enthusiasm persists.
Forty-two second-year students also indicated their interest, and 48 third-year students signed full commitments to five years of public service work after graduation. These third-year students will receive $5,000 off their current tuition.
Kagan said that the Law School was committed to funding the program at least through its five-year experimental phase, regardless of the number of students who sign up.
“We expect it to be popular among alumni, and we expect them to show their support,” said Kagan, who oversaw a five-year capital campaign that ended in June and raised over $476 million. “I’m hopeful it’ll work really well, and that we’ll find whatever extra money we’ll need for it.”
Jessica S. Budnitz, administrative director of the Child Advocacy Program at the Law School, said she was excited about students’ enthusiasm for the program and for public interest careers, more generally.
“I think it’s encouraging students who were already considering public interest law to move forward with their plans,” Budnitz said.
She added that an influx of students into public service could only have positive effects.
“We’re very lucky we have a tremendously talented, creative, interesting population of students here,” Budnitz said. “Leveraging the resources of Harvard Law School to encourage these students to serve their community is really a win-win for everyone.”
—Staff writer Athena Y. Jiang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.