Tufts offer of loan aid steers grads to nonprofits

Tufts University is offering graduates an unusual deal: Take a job as a public school teacher or social worker, or work for any nonprofit, and the university will help pay off their college loans for years to come.

While some law and medical schools across the country have offered similar incentive programs, the effort at Tufts, a university that has long promoted public-service careers, is unprecedented. It marks the first time a university has extensively promoted relatively low-paying public service careers to undergraduates seeking bachelor's degrees in all majors.

Tufts graduates will start getting help with loan payments as early as next fall after they have begun jobs in a nonprofit field. Prior graduates in the earmarked careers can also qualify if they are still paying off their college loans.

Tufts, which plans to begin promoting the program via e-mail and on its websites next month, says it wants to influence students before they accept their first job.

"I'm hoping that our students' career choices will not be distorted as much as they are otherwise by the debt they've acquired in financing their education," said Lawrence Bacow, Tufts president. "I'm hoping the university can help them follow their passion."

Tufts, which will spend $500,000 a year for the loan-repayment program funded by a 2005 endowment gift, is working with each of its schools to devise income and debt parameters for recipients. The key to qualifying, other than working in a public service or government job, will be providing documentation of a low income and significant debt. The amount of help each graduate receives will vary, and Tufts officials said they will not know the average amount until they grant the first awards.

The goal is not to cover the entire debt for a small group, but to help as many graduates as possible with a portion of their debt to entice them to take public service jobs - and stay in them, university officials said. The graduates' income, they noted, should rise with time, as should their ability to cover their monthly loan payments.

On average, Tufts graduates with bachelor's degrees earn starting salaries of $22,700 in jobs with nonprofits and $27,900 in government positions, vs. about $40,800 a year in private-sector jobs, according to the university's most recent data from 2005. Undergraduates, who now pay $46,680 a year for tuition, room, and board, leave with an average debt of $14,400 from federal and private loans.

More universities could follow Tufts' lead as tuition and student debt continue to rise and as more jobs, particularly in government, open up because of an expected wave of retirements, education association officials say.

"Tufts is breaking new ground," said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit association. "It's a welcome effort, particularly that an elite expensive college is doing this and encouraging it."

Students who are considering careers in public service embraced the promise of financial assistance after graduation.

"Any help would be incredible at this point," said Rodela Khan, a Tufts senior majoring in community health and American studies with the goal of working for a public health organization overseas. "It's starting to hit me that soon, I'm going to have to start repaying these loans."

Khan said she and her parents have taken out about $30,000 in federal and private loans, and she will amass more debt next fall when she enters a graduate public health program at Tufts.

Tufts officials said their approach with undergraduates will resemble the university's five-year-old loan assistance program for graduates of the university's Fletcher School, which offers graduate degrees in international affairs and other fields.

Fletcher, which has $75,000 annually for the program vs. the $500,000 for the universitywide effort, gives each recipient $1,500 a year on average, and they can reapply for the assistance as long as they remain in public service and have significant debt, said Laurie Hurley, the school's director of admissions and financial aid.

Coleen Gatehouse, a 2001 Fletcher graduate, said the assistance made a difference to her. She had $50,000 in debt after graduation and made $40,000 in her first job at a Somerville job skills and education program for teens. She later went to work for a higher-education association in Washington and now works for the US Department of State as an academic-exchange specialist.

She qualified for help from Fletcher until last year - when her salary became high enough to make her loan payments more manageable. "It let me stick with my career choice," Gatehouse said of the Fletcher program.

The federal government has offered loan-forgiveness programs for college graduates with federal loans since the late 1950s, often targeting teachers or specific jobs in shortage areas in government, such as translators.

Two weeks ago, Congress passed a measure increasing the programs and easing restrictions on the jobs that qualify. But it included a caveat: The government will only cancel federal loans if someone has worked at least 10 years in a job with a nonprofit.

While the federal government's programs reach people already working in such careers, they do little for college students trying to pick their future jobs, Hartle said.

"Programs like Tufts will prove far more effective because they're at the campus level," he said. "You will probably see students much more aware of the possibilities."

The new federal government program, which could motivate younger workers to stay in their jobs, and the Tufts effort come at a good time because nearly half the government workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years, said Max Stier, president and CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit.

In early November, Stier's organization will host a seminar at Princeton University for university officials on loan forgiveness and fellowships. More than 25 universities, including Tufts, are expected to attend.

"We're trying to influence a new generation of young people into the government," Stier said.

Wertheimer can be reached at wertheimer@globe.com.