Earlier this summer an email popped into my inbox with the subject line, “It finally happened!” It was from my friend and State Bar leader Karen Bauer. She wrote:
“Friends, I know you are all familiar with my career-long mission to educate other lawyers about student loan repayment. My own student loans have literally defined my career. Today, I logged in and found they had disappeared. I finally got Public Service Loan Forgiveness! The $161,000 in debt that hung like a dark cloud over my finances has dissipated. At age 49, I have positive net worth.”
It was certainly good news for Karen, a staff attorney at Legal Aid Society in Milwaukee. She was lucky; she is one of the few in our country who have been a beneficiary of the federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, designed to encourage lawyers toward careers in public service.
However, for thousands of lawyers across our state and nation, the thought of moving beyond a life of heavy school debt is but a dream.
As of this past summer, only 1.4 percent of 207,000 individuals who submitted an application for loan forgiveness have been discharged of their debt.
The problem extends well beyond those who choose public service careers.
Attorney Joe Forward recently wrote in InsideTrack™ (Sept. 2, 2020) that, since the 1980s, tuition rates in current dollars have increased about 500 percent at four-year public and private universities. As of 2016, the average student debt of college seniors who borrowed was almost $30,000, compared to $12,750 in 1996.
He wrote that individuals borrowing for advanced degrees, such as law students, will often graduate with much larger debt loads and a repayment outlook of 20 years or more. Many borrowers will still be paying their student loans as their children prepare for college.
To explore potential solutions to the student debt crisis, Gov. Tony Evers appointed a Task Force on Student Debt. Attorney Bauer and attorney Jamie Miller served, ensuring the needs of the legal profession were represented. The task force recently issued its final report. It notes that Wisconsin has more than $24 billion in outstanding student loan debt. In the United States, 45 million students owe approximately $1.7 trillion.
There are several recommendations laid out in the report that could help our state attract and retain talented professionals, including attorneys, by offering student debt solutions beyond the PSLF program. One proposal worth considering expands and creates more loan forgiveness programs to help more borrowers. Wisconsin already maintains state loan forgiveness programs for physicians and teachers who work in low-income and shortage areas. Why not attorneys? It would add an important tool for recruiting lawyers to practice in rural and underserved areas of our state.
When the new legislature convenes in Madison this January, it will have an opportunity to address this crisis by considering the recommendations outlined in the task force report. Your State Bar will actively work with members of both major political parties to support legislative efforts that reduce the cost of legal education and to provide loan repayment assistance programs when appropriate. But we won’t be able to do it alone. We will need your active help in moving meaningful legislation forward.