ACLU and NCLC File Lawsuit Against US Department of Education Over Failure to Disclose Debt Collection Practice Data

Concerns That Practices May Disproportionately Harm Borrowers of Color

March 30, 2016 10:30 am

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BOSTON — The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Massachusetts, and National Consumer Law Center today filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education seeking details about the agency’s debt collection policies and the potential impact on borrowers of color.

The ACLU and NCLC filed the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston charging the agency failed to fully disclose critical information related to the Education Department’s oversight of the private companies collecting on federal student loans.

“Given the draconian nature of the government’s tools for collecting defaulted student loans, it is vital that those tools are not wielded in a racially discriminatory way,” said Persis Yu, director of the National Consumer Law Center’s Student Loan Borrower Assistance Project.

It has been nearly a year since the groups submitted a FOIA request seeking data related to those agency debt collection practices and any policies for measuring the impact on borrowers of color.

Despite numerous studies showing racial disparities in student debt, the Office of Federal Student Aid says it has no protocols for examining collections by race. Further, in lieu of disclosing requested information concerning the private collection agencies, the department provided heavily redacted materials. The redactions prevent any meaningful understanding of current policies, although NCLC analysis shows that previous versions of these policies actually provided private debt collectors with financial incentives to violate borrowers’ rights.

“The Department of Education is acting like it has something to hide. The public has a right to know how a taxpayer-funded agency handles debt collection to ensure it is done in a fair and nondiscriminatory way,” said Rachel Goodman, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program. “And if taxpayer dollars are being handed over to private debt collectors, we need to know about their practices too. We expect transparency.”

Student debt burdens more than 40 million Americans, but it hits communities of color especially hard. Black and Latino adults are nearly twice as likely as their white peers to hold student debt. Because students of color disproportionately rely on student loans, they are likely to be disproportionately impacted by private debt collectors’ tactics.

“Who gets assessed additional fees, has their wages garnished, or has their debts offset during the collections process are important questions that must be answered. We should not allow the Education Department’s lack of monitoring to exacerbate existing racial disparities,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program of the ACLU of Massachusetts.

The complaint, ACLU v. U.S. Department of Education, is at:

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