Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) was enacted by Congress to incent long-term public interest careers by allowing borrowers to earn forgiveness of their student loans after they make 120 on-time monthly payments while working in a wide range of qualifying public interest positions. A recent survey conducted by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) provides evidence that, at least in the legal profession, PSLF is helping promote long-term public interest careers. The survey also makes it clear that eliminating or capping the program would result in a vast reduction in the number of attorneys committing their careers to providing vital legal services for low-income Americans.
Over 2,000 public interest attorneys responded to the NLADA's survey. Over 90% of them are Civil Legal Aid attorneys and Public Defenders - lawyers who are on the front lines of providing vital criminal and civil legal aid to Americans who cannot afford it. The results paint a clear picture:
- 70% of respondents state that one of their reasons for taking their current job was because it enables them to earn PSLF
- 49% responded they would not have taken their current position or they would likely leave for a different position with a higher salary if a $57,000 cap was instituted
This is compelling and devastating data. Without PSLF, almost half of the respondents are likely to leave before fulfilling the 10 years of service they would otherwise commit to in order to earn forgiveness. And if PSLF remains as vital for the next generation of public interest law students as it was for past ones - something that's very likely given the continuing growth in average amount borrowed to attend law school - up to 70 percent of them may just pass on these types of positions altogether.
The comments and personal stories shared by respondents also portray the role PSLF has played in encouraging them to embark on long-term public interest careers. One commenter said:
"I am a public defender primarily representing juveniles. The work is the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. It is intense, emotional, exhausting, and taxing. It is also something I am so proud of. It is a privilege to represent my clients and guide them and their families through this process...when I learned of the PSLF, I was thrilled. I have come to rely upon the promise to forgive my student loans if I spend a decade of my career dedicated to representing indigent defendants."
The results of NLADA's survey could not be more important or timely. Our judicial system is already one of the worst in world at providing affordable legal services to low-income Americans. Recent proposals from the administration and House Republicans to cap or eliminate PSLF will only worsen the problem. Instead, our elected officials should preserve a program that is working as Congress intended to make long-term public interest careers financially feasible, ensuring access to justice for tens-of-millions of Americans.
Isaac Bowers is the Director of Equal Justice Works' Law School Engagement & Advocacy Unit, overseeing the Student Debt, Student Engagement, and Law School Relations programs. 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.
Sarah Corcoran is the Operations Assistant at Equal Justice Works. Sarah has worked as a freelance political writer, as well as a copy editor for a novelist in Baltimore. Previously, she served as a legal intern in the Baltimore City Circuit Court. She interned with the Department of Homeland Security in their U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Washington, DC and the Customs and Border Protection agency as a liaison between their Washington, DC branch and the state of Arizona regarding border policy. She has also worked in several different roles for ZF Services North America at their Chicago office and interned for the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University. She has BAs in Political Science, United States History, and Sociology from Arizona State University and attended the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law in Baltimore.