Harvard Law School students and alumni wrote a letter on Saturday asking the Law School’s Low Income Protection Plan to maintain current levels of financial aid if the federal government approves student debt relief amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The Low Income Protection Plan covers a portion of loan repayments for Law School alumni with low post-graduation incomes. It aims to give graduates freedom to pursue public sector employment or other relatively low-paying jobs despite high levels of debt accrued by many who attend the Law School.
The Trump administration’s March 20 decision to suspend federal student loan payments and waive interest on these loans during the ongoing national emergency — as well as potential relief packages being debated by Congress — would reduce the amount graduates must pay towards their loans each month.
The letter — signed by roughly 50 current and anticipated future participants of the Protection Plan — states that the Law School should refrain from recalculating financial aid to reflect graduates’ lower loan payments.
“We basically don't want the intention of assistance from the federal government to be offset by a corresponding and equal reduction in assistance from Harvard, because then it's not assistance at all, right?” said Law School graduate Alexandra M. Jordan, who signed the letter.
The letter noted that Law School graduates anticipate that financial challenges may arise during the pandemic and further asked that Harvard modify LIPP policies to give participants affected by an economic crisis increased flexibility.
The suggestions included waiving interest on loans held by the University, loosening requirements for submitting income tax returns to the school, and allowing those who take non-legal jobs to be eligible for assistance.
“Public interest lawyers around the world will need any extraordinary assistance they can get for what’s coming -- medical bills, childcare costs, travel restrictions, job loss, and political instability, among other challenges,” the letter reads. “We hope that Harvard will take this global crisis as an opportunity to show leadership in its commitment to public interest work.”
LIPP associate director Natasha D. Onken replied to the authors of the letter in an email, writing that the program will modify its paperwork requirement for the May application period in light of the United States Treasury Department extending the income tax filing deadline to July 15.
She also wrote that the Law School would advise graduates to continue with their regular loan payments and to only opt-in to federal relief opportunities if necessary. The email noted that suspending payments may impact future eligibility for LIPP, however.
“For those participants who are in LIPP we would recommend they continue to make the loan payments for which they received assistance if they are able,” Onken wrote. “However, if their financial circumstances have changed and they are experiencing financial hardship related to COVID‐19 we would recommend utilizing the federal government’s options.”
According to Onken’s email, the program will review additional changes to LIPP policy as the coronavirus situation continues to evolve.
In response to a request for additional comment, Onken wrote in an email that LIPP has provided comprehensive aid to thousands of graduates and aims to continue this mission through the economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
“As they were during the 2008 financial downturn, need-based financial aid programs, including the Low Income Protection Plan, will remain a top priority for Harvard Law School,” Onken wrote.
Still, Jordan said she hopes the letter will highlight issues that some graduates face making ends meet even with support from LIPP.
“It means that folks who are doing work on the front lines — like trying to get people out of immigration detention centers, working as public defenders, people doing public interest legal work — are having a really hard time paying their bills even with this assistance,” Jordan said.
—Staff writer Kelsey J. Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kelseyjgriffin.