Programs that help borrowers pay off education debt are encouraging Idahos law students to go into public service when they graduate.
At least, thats what Dan Davenport hears. What Davenport, the head of financial aid for the University of Idaho, doesnt see is data to back up what he hears.
As the cost of higher education, especially law school, has soared over the past couple of decades, student debt has pushed graduates away from public defender and prosecutor jobs that dont pay as well as private sector positions.
The bottom line is that they cant make their student loan payments, support a family and live the kind of life they want on those salaries.
And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Student loan debt is consistently cited as the overwhelming reason why attorneys decline or leave positions as prosecutors and public defenders.
In recent years, the federal government has instituted a series of programs designed, in part, to ease college graduates path to public service.
A PAIR OF HELPFUL PROGRAMS
One program allows graduates to cap student loan payments at no more than 15 percent of their income, no matter how much debt they took on during their school years, Davenport said. Thats a big help for young lawyers who emerge from the University of Idaho College of Law with an average debt burden of $80,000.
Another program forgives the remaining balance on direct federal loans after a borrower makes 10 years of monthly payments while in public service.
Davenport said borrowers are free to take advantage of both programs at the same time.
Thats a pretty powerful tool, he said.
But Davenport also wonders whether the programs will last. He worries that graduates will go into the public sector expecting loan forgiveness, only to see a federal bait-and-switch before they reach 10 years of service.
My biggest fear is that Congress will take that away before it ever comes into effect, he said.
Thats a real concern, said Jeffrey Dodge, associate dean of students and administration at the University of Idahos law school.
I think its a dangerous assumption that this program would exist for a very long time, because the federal government could take it out of the budget any year, Dodge said.
Another option is the U.S. Department of Justices John R. Justice Program, which provides loan repayment assistance for state and federal public defenders and state prosecutors who agree to work for at least three years.
Its a great program, Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower said, but theres just one problem: Its not big enough. In fact, none of his deputies has seen a single penny from Congress $10 million appropriation.
If it were funded properly, it would be a great plan, but you know how that goes, Bower said. Right now this is so small and so scattered that its not having much of an impact, in our view, on recruitment and retention of public defenders and prosecutors.
A NEW, COSTLY REALITY
The world of law school financing has changed since the early 1970s, when Bower paid $800 a semester to attend the University of Utah College of Law. Back then, student debt wasnt an obstacle for Bower, who emerged debt-free.
Its an obstacle now, though one Bower faces perpetually when he recruits new deputy prosecutors.
I have lost a couple of really good young lawyers in the last couple years to the private sector who loved what they were doing but just couldnt make it on a prosecutors salary, he said.
Bowers newest deputy prosecutor, Katelyn Farley, graduated from the University of Utahs law school in May with about $100,000 of student debt. Thats almost twice her annual starting salary.
The salary-to-debt ratio is a concern for Farley and her husband, she said. But in the end, doing a job shes passionate about now is more important than making six figures.
The hours are long, but not as long as theyd be if she went to work at a private firm.
At a firm, your work life is everything, she said.
Farley said she plans to take full advantage of the federal governments repayment programs, even though she didnt know they existed until she had made up her mind to pursue a career in a prosecutors office.
Bower addresses the difficulty of bringing in new prosecutors by hiring interns during the break before their final year of law school.
The program offers a kind of test drive for both the student and Bowers office. Its an opportunity to show students how rewarding prosecuting work can be, he said.
(We) try to make it difficult for them to leave us if we like them, Bower said.
A BUYERS MARKET
Some offices in Idaho are encountering less difficulty than Bowers in recruiting new attorneys.
Cassia County Prosecutor Al Barrus said the Great Recession has boosted the number of candidates who apply for open deputy positions.
Even though the pay isnt great it isnt even really good a lot of them have been glad to get a job, Barrus said.
Ada County Public Defender Alan Trimming said hes had trouble filling positions just a couple of times in nearly three decades. He said the Boise lifestyle is a major draw for applicants from all over the country.
In Twin Falls County, Prosecutor Grant Loebs said his deputies average tenure is about 11 years. He attributes that retention to the quality of job he offers.
The pay isnt extravagant a little more than $50,000 a year for entry-level deputies but its steady. The benefits are good and deputies dont have to worry about building up a client list.
Another factor is lawyers relative pay scale in the Magic Valley, Loebs said. A few in the area make a lot more money than public servants, he said, but most dont make that much more. In big cities, the gap is much wider, he said.
Still, Loebs acknowledged that the salary range he offers deputy prosecutors limits his pool of candidates. Lawyers coming out of state schools are likely candidates, he said, but graduates from expensive private schools often arent.
Theres no reason to believe that scenario will end soon, Bower said. The soaring cost of education is a question I think we need to answer.
I think were on the edge of this becoming a national crisis, he said.
Sven Berg: 377-6275