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A number of law schools around the nation are applauding Harvard Law School’s plan to waive third-year tuition for graduates who work five years in public service, but some also say that simply helping graduates who take low-salary jobs to pay off their loans accomplishes the same purpose. Elena Kagan, dean of Harvard Law School, where tuition next year will be $41,500, said that the tuition waiver will be available in addition to programs already in place that subsidize loan payments for graduates who work in public interest jobs. “I want each student to go where he or she can make the biggest difference, but that isn’t the case now,” Kagan said. “They often go to work where they don’t want to work because of the debt burden.” Saul Levmore, dean of the University of Chicago Law School, which gives graduates who enter public service jobs $10,000 annually for seven years to pay school loans, said the Harvard program “looks better than it is.” “It is not a big deal,” he said. “Anybody who is entitled to this program will just borrow $40,000 less, and that would have been subsidized anyway. Our program is easy to administer. If you are in a qualifying job and you abide by the rules, we give you the money.” The University of California, Berkeley School of Law School takes a similar approach, providing up to $100,000 in financial assistance to graduates earning $58,000 or less in public service jobs, said spokeswoman Susan Glass. “A legal education is going up and up in cost but we want people who are drawn to public interest law to take that path without debt being the deciding factor,” Glass said. A good combination David Stern, chief executive officer of Equal Justice Works, a nonprofit in Washington focused on strategies for making public service an appealing option for new attorneys, said initiatives like Harvard’s combined with the recently enacted College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which caps monthly student loan payments to a percentage of income, are making student debt burdens manageable for attorneys who do not chose private practice. A law school graduate who starts a career owing $100,000 but is working for $40,000 a year will pay $300 per month in loan payments instead of $1,000 per month under the new law, Stern said. “For years there was piecemeal, miniscule changes at different schools trying to address law school debt,” said Stern. “This year, with the new law, with the Harvard initiative and some major infusions of money, I think it is possible that eventually debt will not be the obstacle to public service that it has been.” Carol Spruill, associate dean for public interest and pro bono at the Duke Law School, said the federal law forgives debt entirely after 10 years work in public service. Duke is now evaluating how to adapt its loan forgiveness program to mesh with the federal legislation, Spruill said, “The big thing is, if you work for 10 years, your debt is forgiven,” Spruill said. “That is a long huge reform that reduces the pressure on people to go into private practice when they want to practice public interest law.” Harold Hongju Koh, dean of Yale Law School, said the school is as focused on nurturing an ethic of public service among all students as it is on assisting those who take public service jobs. About 80% of Yale law students participate in pro bono legal clinics. A survey of the class of 2001 found that five years after graduation, 36% worked in a public service job. “We want people to see an important part of their lives is service to people who have nothing,” Koh said. “Our financial assistance program for students in public service jobs is basically law school debt free instead of third year tuition free. I tell students, if you go into a low paying job, your debts will be covered and if you go into a high paying job your debts will be retired quickly, so money should not be the deciding factor.”

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