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Expanded loan forgiveness program eliminates significant debt for grads pursuing public service careers

March 12, 2013

Coinciding this week with the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Public Interest Week and the 32nd annual Sparer Symposium, Penn Law has formally announced the revamping of its already generous loan repayment program to ensure that its graduates pursuing careers in public interest and public service can have significant student loan burdens eliminated, including having their loans paid in full.

The changes to Penn Law’s Toll Loan Repayment Assistance Program (TolLRAP) place the Law School at the forefront of institutions seeking ways to increase access to legal education and to address a looming student debt crisis that afflicts all of higher education, while increasing access to legal assistance on the part of underserved communities.

Such leadership in higher education is important today, amid nationwide concern about skyrocketing student loan debt; a record $1 trillion in outstanding debt on student loans in the U.S. has eclipsed credit-card debt, according to the New York Federal Reserve. 

“The pressures created by high student debt discourage many graduates – from law schools and other graduate and professional schools - from pursuing vital careers and accepting job opportunities in public service,” said Penn Law Dean Michael A. Fitts, whose own career began with a federal judicial clerkship and then service in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel. “The changes we are making to TolLRAP mean that Penn Law graduates will be able to apply their legal training and skills in public interest settings anywhere in the world - while wiping away significant debt burdens.”

Several features of Penn Law’s reconfigured TolLRAP program, launched in 2013, include a high salary cap and additional payments to reward extended service, which make it among the most generous loan repayment assistance programs of its kind. New graduates whose public interest, government, or other public service jobs that pay up to $80,000 a year are eligible to have their loans paid by Penn Law, up to a maximum of $140,000.

The TolLRAP overhaul offers graduates who remain in public interest work for up to 10 years and who have a qualifying federal loan to have their debt obligations paid by the Law School.  After 10 years in the TolLRAP program recipients are eligible to have the remaining balance on their loans forgiven by the federal government, as part of the Income Based Repayment (IBR) program; importantly, recipients do not have to pay income tax on the loan forgiveness provided they are working in a public interest or service job.

A unique feature of Penn Law’s program provides additional payments to students after their third year of eligible work as a reward for sustained service, known as TolLRAP-Plus. These extra payments can be used to pay down principal on loan debt or on other expenses, such as cost of living expenses, that may incur during service-related employment. Up to two years of a judicial clerkship, which many law students pursue as part of their legal training, can count towards TolLRAP-Plus eligibility. (Students whose annual income is between $80,000 and $100,000 are eligible for a TolLRAP-plus award.)

The expansion of the loan repayment assistance program is part of the Law School’s comprehensive efforts to train a new generation of lawyers as leaders and problem-solvers in today’s multi-dimensional, global society. Over the past decade Penn Law has pioneered an innovative cross-disciplinary curriculum that, in addition to the traditional practice of law, prepares graduates for a wide variety of leadership roles across fields throughout the public, non-profit, and private sectors.

“The TolLRAP program will make it possible for more attorneys to fulfill their dream of using their law degree to make the world a better place,” said Catherine Carr L’79, Executive Director of Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, who co-teaches a course on public interest lawyering at Penn Law. “And it will benefit us all to have them spend their careers in public interest law representing underserved communities and working to fulfill the American promise of equal justice for all.”

The reconfiguration of TolLRAP enhances a program first launched in 1989 and reflects the Law School’s historic commitment to promoting the pursuit of public interest and government careers by its graduates. The program is made possible through the support of alumni, especially Robert Toll L’66 and Jane Toll GSE ‘66, for whom TolLRAP is named.

“For more than 100 years, Penn Law has embraced service as a professional responsibility, and for more than two decades, it has played a leadership role in insuring that its graduates can pursue public interest and government careers with no debt or with manageable debt burdens,” said Robert Toll. “We are pleased to be able to help further that proud tradition.”

Even prior to the 2013 update TolLRAP has been of great benefit to many recent Penn Law graduates. “As a former teacher, I went to law school with the goal of effecting change in education policy,” said Shaw Vanze L’10, Program Attorney in the General Counsel’s office of the U.S. Department of Education. “Thanks to TolLRAP, I was able to accept a position where I work on legal issues in national education programs.”

Patrick Mulvaney L’08, who has worked as a Staff Attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights since he graduated from Penn Law, added, “Most of my work involves representing poor people facing the death penalty in Georgia and Alabama. I could not have chosen this career path without the support of the TolLRap program.  I’m very grateful to Penn Law both for focusing on public interest work within the school and for providing the financial support that enables students to engage in it when they leave.”

To qualify for the loan repayment program, a graduate’s job must involve law-related public interest work. That could be work in a non-profit organization or international NGO, in government service at any level, as a law school clinical teacher involved in advocacy for underserved populations, or in for-profit employment intended to further the public interest.

Penn Law has been a historic leader in encouraging a service ethic in its students and providing financial pathways to careers in public service. The Law School was among the first in the nation to require completion of at least 70 hours of public service before graduation, a requirement that students routinely exceed. For example, in 2012, almost 90 percent of the graduating class exceeded the requirement, performing more than 30,000 hours of service through the more than 25 student-led pro bono projects which provide free legal services for underserved clients and communities.

In addition to the reconfigured TolLRAP program, the Law School each year offers generous scholarships and post-graduate fellowships to select students committed to practicing in the public sector, enabling them to assist in meeting underserved legal needs while helping them to launch the public interest careers to which they aspire.

Related Coverage:

National Law Journal, March 12, 2013: Top law schools boost scholarships and loan repayment assistance