Journal of Law and Policy


Student debt is a generational crisis facing forty-five million Americans today. Among those with the highest rates of student loan debt are attorneys and among attorneys, those working in public interest have been hit particularly hard as they carry these same high debt rates yet earn low salaries. While student debt has run roughshod over Americans seeking higher education for almost forty years, another crisis has ravaged Americans who are swept up in the criminal legal system. Mass incarceration and mass policing have sent millions to prisons and jails and separated millions of parents and children through family courts. Often the only ones standing in the way of those destructive forces have been the attorneys who work in public defense in our criminal and family courts. Carrying high rates of student debt while still receiving stagnant wages has made a public defense career unsustainable for many attorneys, particularly those working as assigned counsel attorneys in rural communities. Those rural communities are facing a crisis within a crisis, as public defense attorney shortages exacerbate legal deserts leaving our most vulnerable citizens without advocates. Public Service Loan Forgiveness (“PSLF”) was created to deliver student debt cancellation to public sector workers. While the PSLF program had a rocky start, the Department of Education (“ED”) currently implements PSLF in a way that unnecessarily excludes entire sectors of workers, including assigned counsel attorneys. ED’s administration of PSLF fails to address the full breadth of the student debt crisis for public service workers, and is a missed opportunity to leverage PSLF to support access to justice through public defense attorneys. This Article proposes a modest, immediate solution to ease the crunch of the much larger structural dilemma of providing public defense to rural areas through a targeted use of the PSLF program. Here, we examine other categories of public sector workers, namely non-tenured adjunct higher education faculty and certain healthcare workers, who have been excluded from PSLF and how recent regulatory changes gave them access to this crucial debt cancellation. We recommend enacting a change to the PSLF program regulations that would allow assigned counsel attorneys to access PSLF cancellation, thereby encouraging current practitioners to continue to serve rural communities while working to discharge their student debt and attracting newer attorneys with high student debt loads to these areas where lawyers are desperately needed and current practitioners are aging out. Our proposed minor amendments to ED’s PSLF regulations does not solve many of the program’s other shortcomings, but would make a simple but profound contribution to both the student debt crisis and public defender shortage.