How Public Service Loan Forgiveness Helps Close the Justice Gap

Public Service Loan Forgiveness allows borrowers to earn forgiveness on their eligible student loans after making 120 on-time monthly payments while satisfying requirements that include working full time in a qualifying public service position. But with the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization, there are increasing calls to restrict Public Service Loan Forgiveness and limit its effect. This would be a significant blow to poor- and middle-income Americans and one that would widen the justice gap.

As reported by The New York Times, 80 percent of poor Americans have unmet legal needs and the United States currently ranks 66th out of 98 countries in access to and affordability of civil legal services, according to the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index. If we are going to have any hope of closing this justice gap and providing effective and experienced representation to poor Americans, we need to make careers at nonprofits and in civil legal aid financially feasible. Public Service Loan Forgiveness is an essential component in doing that.

Why is that the case? Let's look at the numbers.

According to the American Bar Association, the average amount borrowed to attend a private law school is $122,158. Combine that with the almost $30,000 the average undergraduate with debt borrows, and it is easy to see why many law school graduates have more than $150,000 in student loans.

Contrast that to the median salaries for lawyers at civil legal services organizations. According to NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals, the median first year salary is $44,636. After 8 to 10 years of experience, the median salary is only $58,453.

Without the ability to earn Public Service Loan Forgiveness, public defender offices, nonprofits and legal aid organizations will face even larger barriers in recruiting and - most importantly - retaining attorneys to provide experienced and high quality representation to low- and middle-income Americans.

In fact, it's so vital that many organizations that represent poor people are proactively educating incoming attorneys about their debt relief options. According to Bruce Perrone, a senior attorney with Legal Aid of West Virginia, "When we lose advocates with significant training and experience because of financial pressures and student loan debt, it really hurts. So we've begun educating every new hire, at the time of hiring, about Public Service Loan Forgiveness."

Despite the incredible benefits retaining experienced public interest attorneys provides to poor- and middle-income Americans, we've heard people argue that we can't afford it. Don't believe it. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the federal government will earn $174 billion in profits on student loans through 2023. That increases an additional $715 million if you take into account the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013.

Others are arguing that Public Service Loan Forgiveness may be the cause of high law school tuition. Don't believe them either. As we'll report next week, law school tuition appears to be geared (however inefficiently) to market demand and the creation of Public Service Loan Forgiveness in 2007 has not resulted in an influx of students to law schools.

Isaac Bowers is Associate Director for Law School Engagement & Advocacy, overseeing the Student Debt, Student Engagement, and Law School Relations programs. He was previously responsible for the organization's educational debt relief initiatives. In that capacity, he wrote a weekly blog for U.S. News; conducted monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advised employers, law schools and professional organizations; and worked with Congress and the Department of Education on Federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a Fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco, where he represented citizen groups and local agencies in environmental litigation and land use and planning issues. Isaac received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.