The Public Option

HLS should fill the hole left by the elimination of the Public Service Initiative

Harvard Law School students have heard nothing but bad news on the job front this year. After weathering a tough recruitment season, law students are now faced with a round of budget cuts that will worsen employment opportunities in the public sector as well. On Monday, Harvard Law School suspended the Public Service Initiative, a program that waived third-year tuition for law students who pledged to five years of public service after graduation. While budget cuts call for belt-tightening, it’s sad to see HLS’s Public Service Initiative disappear.

Given the high cost of law school, finances can often be a determining factor in law students’ career choices. According to HLS Student Financial Services, the standard student budget for the 2009-2010 school year is $67,900. Although financial aid is available, even a portion of this amount is a daunting price that many students will pay for themselves with student loans. Under this pressure, choosing to go into the private sector, where the average starting salary for 2008 HLS grads was over $155,000, can be a more stable and financially responsible choice than taking less lucrative job in public service.

Therefore, it is important to provide financial incentives to allow interested grads to pursue important work in public service and not feel required to take a corporate job to pay the bills. The tuition waiver is not just a symbolic gesture of HLS’s support for public service; it can mean the difference between a student starting on their career path in the public or private sectors. HLS will form a committee to suggest a successor to the Public Service Initiative whose recommendation will be announced in March of next year, and we hope this body will take provide some sort of adequate replacement to provide financial incentives for public sector work.

While it is admirable that HLS has moved to increase its allocation of financial aid by $2.7 million, this does not serve the same purpose of helping those who need it most. Students from low-income backgrounds who go into corporate law after graduation will no longer be low-income students when they are paying back their loans. Monetary resources should be directed toward those who will actually have difficulty with loan repayment, and that will be students in lower-paying public sector jobs.

Though this budget cut would, all other things being equal, likely lead to reduced enthusiasm for public service, given the weakness of the corporate law labor market, demand for public service jobs is up at the moment. Consequently, the flow of students into public interest careers may remain high for the immediate future. In this job market, the post-graduation employment choice for law students is often between no job and a low-paying public sector position, in which case the latter option would still be relatively more lucrative. However, this does not excuse the elimination of an important program that enabled HLS’s students to use their skills to promote the common good, and we hope to see the school replace the Public Service Initiative soon.



Recommended Articles