The program, which would save participating students over $40,000 in tuition costs, comes amid a push by Law School Dean Elena Kagan to find ways to incentivize students to take jobs away from major corporate law firms.
“We’re trying to do all we can to enable our students to go into public service and public interest jobs free of debt,” Kagan said in a phone interview yesterday.
Like many other top law schools, Harvard already has a major loan forgiveness program for students who choose to take public-interest jobs.
Kagan said that a few law schools provide similar tuition grants to a select number of students, but no other law school offers a comparable tuition incentive to all interested students.
Jessica S. Budnitz, a Law School lecturer who received the Gary Bellow Public Service Award in 2003, said the program was “a fabulous step...to encourage our students to do public-interest work and promote social justice causes.”
Currently, somewhere between 60 and 80 students, out of a class of about 550, could be expected to go into careers in public service, according to Kagan. She said that she hopes the program will increase that number substantially.
“What this is intended to do is to appeal to students who really want to go into careers in public service but were deterred from doing so because of their fear of carrying around large debt burdens,” Kagan said.
But Peter A. Winograd, a graduate of the Law School and a professor at the University of New Mexico, noted that many of the people entering public-interest law are motivated by non-pecuniary reasons anyway, though the initiative would provide “further encouragement.”
“It could be that many of the people who take advantage of this are people who would think about going into careers in public service anyway,” said Winograd, who has been active in getting federal legislation passed for loan forgiveness programs.
He noted that people considering careers in public interest law know that they can expect to command salaries that are far below those of their classmates who are entering the corporate sector.
Budnitz said part of the impact of the program is “psychological” and helps students feel that taking a job in the public sector is manageable.
Stanford Law School Dean Larry D. Kramer said it was “unclear” whether the initiative is more generous than loan forgiveness programs, according to The New York Times. He added that traditional loan forgiveness programs might encourage those students who enter public-interest law to stay there, in contrast to Harvard’s new program, which requires only a five-year commitment.
Students who wish to participate in the program will have to sign a pledge committing themselves to working in public service for at least five years. Kagan said that the Law School plans to put rules in place to guard against students who renege on their commitments.
“If people go into high-paying jobs before the five-year commitment is through,” Kagan said, “we expect them to refund the grants that we’ve paid them.”
The program will go into operation for the class of 2011 entering this fall, but current students can take advantage of a phase-in plan that grants tuition breaks of $10,000 to first-year law students and $5,000 to second-years. Kagan said that the program should cost about $3 million per year, though she noted that the cost estimates were “a little uncertain” because of the difficulty in predicting how many students will take advantage of the program.
Winograd was optimistic that the new initiative would set a precedent for other law schools to follow.
“As we saw in the college arena, Harvard began it and lots of schools now are making much more financial aid available,” he said. “Ultimately, this can only help put more people in the public sector.”
—Staff writer Alexandra Perloff-Giles can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.