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Another path to public service

TUFTS UNIVERSITY plans to give some of its students an important financial break. Undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni who agree to work in the nonprofit sector can apply for help to pay off their student loans. Tufts is investing $500,000 a year in the needs-based program.

It's a wise incentive that should help many students, including the undergraduates who leave the school with an average debt of $14,400 to cover the school's annual $48,000 cost for undergraduates. The loan forgiveness program also adds heft to Tufts' ongoing commitment to civic education and engagement. In 2000, Tufts started the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service to help students, alumni, and faculty engage in public work.

Now Tisch is measuring its success by tracking students in the college classes of 2007, '08, '09, and '10 to study the links between their college experiences and their later professional activities. The study is looking at demographics, including gender, ethnicity, and financial aid status, as well as attitudes and post-college experiences.

Forgiveness of at least part of their debt should help more students commit to careers in teaching, human services, and other areas. Tufts plans to spread the money widely, helping large numbers of students with portions of their debt. Students and alumni can start applying next semester for awards that will probably be made in the fall of 2008, according to a university spokeswoman. Recipients will have to reapply for support each year.

Although the program hasn't started yet, it's not too soon to think about how it might evolve. One challenge that Tufts and other colleges should take on is how to foster longevity, encouraging people to stay in nonprofit careers for stints of five to 10 years and beyond, so that they don't just dabble in nonprofit work for two or three years before moving on to higher-paying, for-profit careers.

For example, if students are going to work in demanding communities or school settings, their college could prepare them for what they'll face through visits to communities and schools - and support them as they work. Too many well-meaning young graduates have fled the difficulties of urban teaching or other positions because they get inadequate training and little help on the job.

As such approaches evolve, colleges should observe each other so that they can quickly borrow each other's best strategies.

Tufts deserves credit for encouraging its graduates to do work that creates better schools, communities, and healthcare services. It's an interesting reinterpretation of America's commitment to the pursuit of happiness: One shouldn't settle for pursuing one's own happiness when there's a whole world waiting to be improved.

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