Educational Debt and Access to Justice: An Increasingly Toxic Brew

December 13, 2018

We occasionally get the question: why do you work on student debt reform—isn’t the CBF’s advocacy focused on improving access to the justice system? In fact, mounting student loan debt in the United States is directly related to access to justice, and addressing it is a key strategy in leveling the playing field in courts nationwide.

While the student debt problem extends far beyond the legal profession, the growing access to justice issue is that lawyers for years now have been coming out of law school with often mortgage-sized debt, facing far greater financial challenges in pursuing and remaining in legal aid or public service careers. These challenges increasingly are also affecting lawyers in private practice who are striving to provide affordable services to the consumer and small business market.

A 2006 study co-authored by the CBF, Investing in Justice: A Framework for Effective Recruitment and Retention of Illinois Legal Aid Attorneys, underscored the significance of this problems for legal aid lawyers. The study found that financial burdens limited the ability of attorneys to pursue, and remain in, legal aid careers and that student debt was a major factor. The study recommended an increase in the availability of loan repayment assistance, as well as fellowships and scholarships to mitigate the negative impact of student debt. Other studies around the country reached similar conclusions.

In addition to developing and continuing to support, fund, and distribute a number of groundbreaking fellowships and scholarships for legal aid attorneys and public service-minded law students, the CBF went to work advocating for federal loan repayment programs that would benefit legal aid and public service attorneys as well as other public interest and government professionals. This work, in partnership with the American Bar Association, Equal Justice Works, and many other organizations around the country, led to the federal College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, which created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program as well as income based repayment options for federal loans.

The CBF also supported expansion of federal income-based repayment programs that allow repayment of educational loans on a sliding scale that takes into account the borrower’s income. These programs provide critical flexibility for lawyers pursuing legal aid, public service and other community service paths in the legal profession, and have made a real difference.

And yet, the CBF’s work was not done. Fast forward about ten years to late 2017, and PSLF was about to face its first test: the initial class of students eligible to apply for forgiveness. Suddenly, the projected cost of this program had become a concern, as had the administration and logistics of a program that thousands of people in public interest and government jobs, both legal and otherwise, have relied upon in making career and financial decisions for themselves and their families.

We quickly realized that in order to preserve PSLF, a broader conversation was needed about how to more comprehensively reform the way that our country finances higher education and manages educational debt. To that end, the CBF has proposed a number of sweeping reforms that address some of the root causes of skyrocketing educational costs and debt and protect those programs that are working well to encourage public service and social enterprise.

Any such overhaul of the educational debt system will be a longer-term battle that will face opposition from those entities that benefit from the current problematic system. The CBF has identified and supported legislation that addresses key pieces of the larger solution and that provide fairer and more flexible options for students, their parents, and their employers. Our legal system needs attorneys dedicated to legal aid, public service and consumer focused practices to make our justice system more fair, accessible and efficient for everyone. Relieving and managing the increasing burden of educational debt is one critical way to help those who help others.

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