Just months after Harvard unveiled a financial-aid overhaul for undergraduates that left other universities, including Yale, scrambling to keep pace, Harvard Law School announced last week what Harvard administrators pitched as a similar tuition shake-up.

Harvard will now forgive the third year of tuition for law students who commit to at least five years of public service after graduation. Officials in Cambridge billed the new aid plan as the first program to offer tuition incentives for students to enter public service, a less lucrative career track than private practice.

But Yale Law School officials rushed to prevent Harvard’s well-hyped announcement from upstaging their own loan-assistance programs and public-service initiatives.

“Our view is that we’ve been leaders in public interest for a very long time — the mission of the Law School has always been to educate lawyers and leaders,” Associate Dean Mark Templeton said. “If others want to catch up to what we’ve done, that’s good for the world.”

Since 1989, Yale Law School has forgiven student loans based on post-graduation income. So graduates earning less in public service — or any other less profitable career — do not shoulder as much of the debt as their classmates who become well-paid partners in private law firms. Harvard Law also has a program to help low-income graduates repay loans.

Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh said he applauds efforts by other schools to encourage students to enter public service — an area in which he said Yale excels by virtue of its institutional culture.

“Every school should in their own way increase the number of graduates who make public interest a part of their lives,” he said. “We are less interested in ad hoc financial incentive than in a culture of public spiritedness. That culture of public spiritedness is really what creates lawyers who care about the public interest … and is the thing that is going to have the most impact in the long term.”

At Yale, Templeton said, a dedication to public service is an admissions criterion for many of the faculty and colors the institution’s philosophy on the duty of the legal profession.

“Lawyers are uniquely positioned to think about the interest of their immediate clients as well as larger social objectives,” he said. “That’s always been what Yale Law School has done — it courses through our veins.”

Yale’s pre-existing loan-repayment-assistance program was designed to prevent law-school debt from swaying graduates’ career choices, Templeton said. Yale’s program is flexible, Templeton said, assisting graduates working in non-profits, government, international organizations or smaller, less profitable firms.

And whereas Harvard’s tuition break comes with a binding five-year commitment under which the university takes its money back if the student drops out, Yale’s program allows people to enter and exit until the loans are paid off.

“There are different ways of making sure that people have financial support to pursue public-interest careers,” he said. “You have to look at results and substance. Form is secondary.’ ”

Harvard Law School Dean Elena Kagan was traveling this week and could not be reached for comment.

Besides financial incentives for public-service work, Templeton also touted Yale’s resources and curricular emphasis on public-interest law through clinics, fellowships and career support — what he called a “cradle-to-grave” approach.

About 60 percent of Yale Law students participate in public-interest work during the academic year, and 80 percent enroll in at least one clinic over their three years.

Unlike Harvard, Yale Law School does not have a pro bono hour requirement “because Yale students always exceed any number you could pick,” Koh said.

Between 9 and 12 percent of Harvard Law graduates enter public service in their first non-clerkship job, compared to about 15 percent from Yale.

The cost of Harvard’s initiative would depend on how many students take advantage of the offer but is estimated at $3 million annually. Yale’s loan program costs about $2.4 million last year.

Tuition at both Yale and Harvard Law School exceeds $40,000 a year.