A month after Harvard Law School unveiled a much-hyped public-service tuition incentive that had Yale Law School officials on the defensive, Yale has breathed new life into its own assistance programs for students planning to enter public service.
The Law School will raise the baseline income below which graduates’ loans are forgiven from $46,500 to $60,000, double the number of post-graduate public-interest fellowships from 14 to 28, hire a new full-time director of public-interest programs to counsel students, and boost funding for summer opportunities in public service. Yale Law School Dean Harold Hongju Koh announced the four-pronged initiative Monday before a crowd of students at an annual reception to honor fellowship recipients and recognize the public-interest achievements of student groups and clinics.
Last month, Harvard announced it will now waive the third year of tuition for law students who commit to at least five years of public service after graduation in the hopes of encouraging more graduates to enter public-interest careers, which generally pay less than private practice.
But Yale Law School administrators and students said it was still Harvard, not Yale, that was trying to close the gap.
Koh, who billed Monday’s announcement as “the most consistent, generous and flexible financial-aid program that promotes public interest,” said Yale’s approach focuses on fostering a community where a spirit of public service prevails rather than on financial incentives.
“The question is, ‘What is the purpose of public-interest programs?’” he said after Monday’s reception. “We think it’s a culture of public-spiritedness, not ad hoc financial incentives, and the second aspect is to ensure that money doesn’t control career choices.”
Because Yale’s program was announced after business hours, Harvard Law School officials could not be reached for comment Monday evening.
As part of the initiative, Yale’s loan-repayment-assistance program, which has forgiven student loans based on post-graduation income since 1989, will now waive all loan contributions for graduates making less than $60,000, and up to $30,000 in undergraduate loans will also become eligible for repayment assistance, up from a ceiling of $18,000. About 280 alumni currently participate in the program. In addition to doubling the number of post-graduate fellowships for public service, the Law School will also add a second year to some existing fellowships.
The new position of a director of public-interest programs will be responsible for advising students, providing programming and coordinating school-wide public-service activities. The increased funding for summer opportunities will be devoted to programs such as the Center for International Human Rights and the China Law Center.
Koh said Yale’s emphasis on public service continues after graduation with fellowships and loan-repayment assistance, but it begins before students even arrive.
“Yale Law School is a partner with our students in supporting and encouraging them to do what they want to do, which is to change the world through their legal education,” he said. “We want that to be the reason that they come to law school here, and we want that to be a decision they can make at every stage of their career without regard to money.”
One student who said he came to Yale for its reputation as a leader in public service, Tomas Lopez LAW ’10, said the announcement was a welcome improvement to an already strong program.
“It’s consistent with Yale Law School’s deep commitment to public service and public interest that is very much in line with the ethos of the school and is why all of us came here,” agreed Marisa Van Saanen LAW ’10.
Other students said the announcement would help draw more public-spirited students like them.
“This will have a positive influence on our admissions, and it shows that the administration is committed to attracting people who are dedicated to public service,” Will Collins LAW ’10 said.
Lea Shaver LAW ’06 said she welcomed the initiative, which will help her repay $75,000 in debt from her Law School loans. She now works at Yale Law School’s Information and Society Project.
The initiative’s concept dates as far back as 2004, when Koh formed a committee on public service and financial aid. Students formed their own public-interest working group, and the two bodies “met and compared notes,” he said. The final shape of the initiative, he said, was determined based on the input of the students.
But even though the initiative was long in the making, its unveiling was forced Harvard’s own announcement last month, students said. Students interviewed said there had been concern within the Law School and administrators that if Yale did not expand benefits for public interest, it would fall behind.
“A lot of people had negative reactions toward [Harvard’s] announcement and felt that Yale wasn’t doing anything,” Lauren Chamblee LAW ’10 said. “It was a long time coming.”
But despite the timing, students and administrators cast Harvard, not Yale, as the follower.
“Harvard is playing catch-up,” Sohail Ramirez LAW ’10 said. “And it’s about time.”
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.