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It doesn’t get much better than free. Public interest graduates from several high-profile law schools won’t have to pay anything toward their student loans under recently revamped loan repayment assistance programs. The University of California, Berkeley School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center have announced improved forgiveness programs that will cover all law school loan debt for many of their graduates who go on to work in public interest law for at least 10 years, making their legal education essentially free. “The students are delighted with this,” said Georgetown law professor Philip Schrag. The loan forgiveness programs at Georgetown and Berkeley are designed to complement the College Cost Reduction & Access Act — a federal program intended to help borrowers manage their student debt that went into effect in July. The federal program is especially helpful for public interest workers, because the government will forgive the loan balance after the borrower has made payments for 10 years. Loan forgiveness applies to lawyers working at nonprofit organizations, government agencies and legal aid organizations. Under the income-based repayment portion of the new federal program, monthly loan payments are capped at about 10 percent of the borrower’s income, which is important because public interest lawyers generally make far less than their counterparts at law firms. A survey last year by the National Association for Law Placement found that public interest attorneys can expect starting salaries of about $41,000. Both Berkeley and Georgetown will pay the entirety of those capped monthly payments for 10 years, until the federal government forgives the debt. “We’ve been working on this for about a year,” said Schrag, who directs the Center for Applied Legal Studies, where students represent refugees from persecution who are seeking asylum in the United States. “It really was the new federal program that prompted us to change our program.” Some public interest lawyers who graduate from Berkeley and Georgetown and make relatively high salaries won’t be eligible for full loan coverage, however. Berkeley’s revamped program will pay all loan costs for graduates making up to $65,000 a year. Graduates earning between $65,000 and $100,000 will receive loan assistance on a sliding scale. At Georgetown, the new program covers all loan payments for those making $75,000 or less. Graduates making more than $75,000 will receive loan assistance on a sliding scale. The long-term plan is to eliminate the $75,000 income cap, but there isn’t money to support that at present, Schrag said. The funding for Georgetown’s program comes from alumni donations, while Berkeley’s is funded through a combination of donations and tuition — called fees in the University of California system. While Berkeley and Georgetown appear to be the first two law schools to dovetail their forgiveness policies with the new federal program, Schrag suspects more schools will make similar moves in the coming months. “We hope this will attract more applicants who are interested in public service,” he said.

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