The Voices We Can’t Hear: How Student Loan Debt Helps Maintain The Status Quo

When I began this blog post, I admittedly started in a completely different direction. I kept coming back to a topic that has always intrigued me; how is it that the students we teach get to the point where they are in our class or clinic?  What was the path that brought them here? What were their motivations and what did they originally seek out to accomplish? But I also wonder, and what led me to this particular topic is, who could be here, but isn’t?

This post addresses in part, one of the challenges that presents itself for both current and potential law students. Debt. I often wonder if we are doing enough as law professors to encourage students to not only enter public interest work but make sure motivated and passionate students who face multiple barriers, including socioeconomic and class background, are able to view law school as a realistic option in the first place. One of the ways I believe we can bridge the gap between underrepresented student groups of all types and the traditional law student is supporting (and assuring students are informed about) loan forgiveness programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF).

For those of you not familiar with the program, PSLF is a program that allows an applicant to have their federal loan debt forgiven after 120 on-time payments while working in qualifying nonprofit, government or other public interest employment. For law students who want to work in public interest, this can make law school more realistic.

PSLF has been on the chopping block in Congress a few times in recent years and, admittedly, a selfish fear comes to mind with the new incoming administration: will it support programs like this? This topic may seem unimportant given the serious concerns we and many of our students have (and are aptly described in Mary Lynch’s recent blog post). We know we must support our students. But I keep coming back to the voices of the talented, dedicated students who never made it to law school, and not for lack of talent or ambition.  Many of the voices who are locked out are likely those who are able to speak to economic and racial injustice better than most in our elitist profession.

Statistically, law school debt has affected some groups more than others. Here I focus on one example; first generation college students who go on to attend law school. According to the LSSSE 2014 Annual Survey, first generation students have more debt than non-first generation students. This is thought in part to be attributed to lower levels of family income and support, and educational degree expectations and plans. 48% of Hispanic, 43% of black/African-American, 25% of Asian and 23% of white law students are first generation college students.  Among other factors, the exorbitant cost of law school closes the door of opportunity to be a lawyer before many even have a chance to pass through it. Some are willing to take on the debt to pursue higher education, but for those who aren’t—or realistically can’t—the door is not only closed but appears locked.

Generally, first generation students in law school are in the minority, at 27%. They usually have to work outside school, and they are able to participate in less extracurriculars as a result.(LSSSE)  A 2015 op-ed from the National Law Journal  spoke to how the neediest students end up with more debt because scholarships are often merit-based (LSAT scores) instead of based on financial need. Considering the correlation between high parental education and high LSAT scores, the author argues that the neediest applicants are doubly disadvantaged; “They are least likely to gain admission and, even if admitted, they are least likely to be awarded the most generous scholarships.”

Putting this into perspective, the numbers surrounding law school costs and debt—with which I’m sure you are all familiar—are staggering:

In 2014, the average law student graduating from a private law school accumulated $122,000 in student loan debt, and the average public law school graduate had accumulated $84,000. This does not include an average of $30,000 in student debt for undergraduate studies. By contrast, according to a 2014 survey by the National Association for Law Placement, the starting salary for a legal aid lawyers was $44,600, and for prosecutors and public defenders, starting salaries for each were approximately $50,000.” Public Service Loan Forgiveness: ABA Supports Preserving Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness-One Pager 

A common argument against keeping programs such as PSLF is that students are uneducated about the consequences of loans and should be held responsible for the payments. Doing the math, it doesn’t make much sense to take on a debt of $140,000+ only to have a chance of working in a highly-competitive job in the $40,000-50,000 range. With the consequences of loan debt so apparent, and the alternatives so few, we are in fact telling future public interest lawyers that they are bound to a life of high debt unless they receive a scholarship or they (or their families) can afford the high tuition.

Programs like PSLF can be a threat to the enormous profit the federal government makes on student loans every year.  At the same time, from an economic perspective, less loan debt means more spending power, which results in more money being pumped into the economy, housing market, etc. As a society, we pay a lot of lip service to the importance of an education and then chide students for taking out loans to afford that education.  High debt has delayed many borrowers from getting married, having families, and buying houses. If nothing else, maybe the fact that borrowers with loan forgiveness would pump money back into the economy will sway the incoming President, who has already spoken out against the high costs of education and the profit the government makes from student loans. Even considering the political compromises that go into budget proposals, I was disheartened that President Obama proposed to limit the PSLF loan forgiveness to $57,500 in his 2015 budget proposal. As a former community organizer and law professor, he was no doubt aware of the high costs of law school and low pay of public interest work. It remains to be seen what our President-elect will do.

Loan forgiveness programs like PSLF made a career in public interest attainable for me. Many first generation students like myself, whose families couldn’t financially support us through college and law school, made a tough decision that others call irresponsible. I don’t regret my choice. But my ability to spend a career working as a social justice advocate will suffer if PSLF is taken away. And many incoming law students who, but for PSLF, law school would otherwise not be possible, will be cheated of a chance to pursue their dream of doing the same.

We need public interest attorneys. Many who currently have a career in public interest entered law school to do what they are doing now. Let’s keep the option open to all passionate, dedicated, and talented persons who want to work for social justice, regardless of their background or differences, seen and unseen. Support these programs at the federal and state level in any way possible. I have been inspired by the efforts of the ABA’s campaign #Loan4Giveness which followed the proposal to cut the PSLF program, as well as SALT’s B.A. to J.D. Pipeline events.  We hear a lot about educating students on the realities of job prospects and debt post-graduation. While vital, it’s equally important to recognize the injustice involved in limiting public interest jobs to those who can only afford law school without incurring substantial debt.  More generally, it’s also important to consider how the elite structure of law school encourages a select applicant pool values certain admission criteria that only continues keeping out the under-represented.

Support students by making them aware of these programs, and by sharing your own story if you or someone you know has benefited (or could have benefited) from such a loan forgiveness program. I would like to echo Jill Engle’s July blog post in saying that the privilege we have, has given us a platform. The ability to go to law school is an opportunity that not everyone has been presented with. The voice that comes with being an attorney is incredibly powerful when used for the right purpose, and if we allow schools to remain elitist institutions where anyone can apply but few can afford on their own, the status quo will not change and diverse voices will go unheard.



One Response

  1. An incredibly important and timely topic as we face a new administration, as well as continued crushing legal needs among the underrepresented and disadvantaged. Loan forgiveness programs are critical to attracting talented advocates to public interest jobs at a time when the income differential between the highest and lowest earners nationally is staggering. We should all be supporting these programs, and advising the students who seek to serve the most vulnerable among us that these options are available.

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