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Post-graduation service helps students pays back tuition

Tufts University junior Dean Ladin expected to owe as much as $40,000 in student loans upon graduation and assumed he’d need to postpone for years his dream of working in youth services.

But now he’s planning to apply for a low-paying teaching job in a high-need setting. By doing so, he will become eligible for a program, launched earlier this year, to help Tufts graduates pay down their debts if they go to work in a public service field.

The program has “put the notion into my mind that I might be able to do something other than big business,” the political science major says.

Eager to encourage public service and give debt-burdened graduates more options, several colleges and universities are trying new initiatives.

This fall, for instance, eight 2008 Princeton University graduates are the first group to begin two-year, federal jobs as a pre-condition for pursuing a free Princeton master’s degree.

Harvard Law School said earlier this year it will, starting in 2010, waive one year’s $41,500 tuition for third-year students who commit to work five years in government or non-profit fields. Tufts became the nation’s first university this year to offer loan repayment assistance to all its graduates, not just those from a particular professional school.

Recruiting students for Uncle Sam

Undergraduates at 15 colleges are for the first time this fall receiving stipends to discuss their federal internship experiences and recruit classmates to work for the federal government. Meanwhile, the year-old Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program eventually will discharge outstanding balances on federal student loans for anyone who, after October 2007, works full-time for 10 years in government or non-profit groups.

Supporters of new initiatives say the programs are necessary to create opportunities for students and society alike. The average new college graduate owes almost $22,000 on student loans, a 63 percent inflation-adjusted increase from 1993 when the average graduate owed $9,300.

“We’ve heard nothing but concern,” says Christine Lindstrom, director of higher education for U.S. PIRG, the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups. “Some say, ‘I want to be a teacher, but if I’m staring at $600 worth of loan repayments a month, maybe that’s not a good idea.’ ”

Public service fields also need to recruit fresh talent. Public schools must attract 2 million new teachers over the next decade, according to federal projections. The nation’s nursing shortage could reach 500,000 by 2025, says a 2008 Vanderbilt University report. And the federal government, facing a wave of baby boomer retirements, is trying to fill nearly 200,000 jobs in two years.

“The cost of education is a major barrier to the pursuit of government jobs and public service professions,” says Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, a non-profit that encourages careers in government. “When you don’t have the right talent in government, you don’t get good government. And we’re seeing demands on government that are extraordinary,” such as management of the financial industry bailout.

Program benefits still unclear

Not everyone is convinced, however, that financial incentive programs have a big impact on career decisions. Don Heller of the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Pennsylvania State University reviewed scholarly literature on the subject last year for the College Board and found evidence to be inconclusive. It’s unclear “whether … all you’re doing is forgiving the loans of students who would have gone into (a public service) profession anyway,” Heller says.

Some graduates pursue public service jobs despite heavy debt burdens. Ivy Hest, a 2007 Brandeis University graduate, didn’t let $36,000 in student loans scare her away from a job as a political organizer at Rosie’s Place, a Boston shelter for poor and homeless women. She has worked three jobs and has three roommates in order to pay down principal each month. But she says she’s not tempted to take a higher-paying job.

“I feel I need to be working right now with people who are low-income and underserved because I don’t want them to feel lost,” Hest says.

For Tufts senior Jennifer Bailey, however, the arc of her public service career is determined largely by financial incentives. She’s a Truman Foundation scholar, which means she’ll receive up to $30,000 toward a master’s degree in exchange for working three years in public service after graduate school. Knowing grad school won’t require huge loans, she says she can afford to teach for a year or two after college and forgo a higher-paying job.

Institutions supporting new public service initiatives hope others will follow their leads. Princeton, for example, last year brought together representatives from 24 colleges and universities to encourage wider adoption of the programs.

But because private incentives are costly to endow and replicate, some who dream of a public service renaissance have set their sights on Congress. A “Roosevelt Scholars” bill, which would create an ROTC-type program to make college less expensive for future civil servants, is pending in the House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor.

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For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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