by Isaac Bowers, Director of Law School Engagement & Advocacy, Equal Justice Works
Many students reading this have an idea of what they want to do after they graduate law school. Whether it is to work in your community as a public defender, join a prestigious law firm as a new associate, or clerk for a judge at the state or federal level, each of you have chosen a different path to take. One option many law students forego in the hopes of a high paying private sector job is working in the public sector. This can include working for the government, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, or various legal aid organizations across the country. To better prepare yourself for a career in the public sector, there are many things you should know, and an important program you should fight to protect.
Public sector employees are lower-income professionals that are working for the greater good in their community, whether that is through non-profits or the government. These public sector attorneys rely on Income-Driven Loan Repayment plans, Loan Repayment Assistance Programs, and most importantly, Public Service Loan Forgiveness, to be able to afford the high price law degree necessary to work as a public sector attorney. Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) offers relief to these public sector workers across the country, and unfortunately, the current administration has proposed eliminating or capping PSLF at $57,500. While eliminating PSLF would be devastating for our public servants, capping the program at this level would be only marginally less harmful to our public sector.
For example, in the legal field served by Equal Justice Works, a survey conducted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association showed that about half of the 2,007 lawyers in the survey would not have taken their current public sector position, or would leave for a position with a higher salary, if a cap was put in place. This would leave the country without the legal aid and public defenders vital to ensuring access to justice for everyone in our legal system. Attorneys in other sectors, like prosecutors, would greatly decrease as well.
Ensuring PSLF works for graduate and professional students is not just critical to the legal profession. Many professions require or rely on graduates with professional or graduate degrees to fill crucial positions, such as teachers, doctors, therapists, social workers, physical therapists, nurses, and many others. Nonprofit and governmental institutions that rely on people with these degrees would face recruitment and retention problems that parallel those in the legal field.
Capping PSLF at an amount that limits its utility for graduate and professional students is shortsighted for other reasons as well. First, graduate and professional students are proportionately more likely to work in the public sector than those with only undergraduate degrees. Forty-eight percent of full time workers age twenty-five to fifty-nine with graduate and professional degrees work in the public sector.
Second, a study done by Equal Justice Works has shown that after ten years, the average graduate and professional student borrower will have repaid 91 percent of the amount they initially borrowed, while the remaining balance forgiven is largely interest on the original loans. Given the economic benefits provided by the public sector, it is clear that investing in graduate and professional students should be a big deal for the federal government.
This is where you come in.
Equal Justice Works is building a coalition of organizations, from state level prosecutors to teachers and police officers, to advocate for PSLF, but we can’t do this on our own. Students at law schools and graduate schools across the United States need to speak up about how important PSLF is to their futures.
How you advocate for PSLF is up to you! The important thing is that we bring more students on to advocate for Public Service Loan Forgiveness and ensure that Congress and the White House don’t prevent a generation of professionals from joining the public sector.