Nearly two years after our initial request, we are finally able to close the file on our Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Education.
Back in March of 2013, we sent a FOIA request to the Department requesting documents related to the financial incentives and oversight of the 22 private collection agencies that collect federal student loans. In response, we received no useful information. Of the 25 pages we received, 17 were completely black, and 8 pages had all but the debt collectors’ names redacted. Finally, after months of getting no response to our appeal, NCLC filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the Department of Education.
Under the terms of our settlement, the Department agreed to provide us with an uncensored version of all of those documents.
The documents show that the Department paid approximately $22 million in bonuses to 11 debt collectors in Fiscal Year 2012. One such company was NCO Group, Inc. whose parent company settled charges with the FTC for $3.2 million just one year later. The documents also showed that the service quality category was omitted from the calculation of the collection agency’s performance scores. This is a huge problem. As we discussed in our 2014 report, service quality is the only performance category that incorporates borrower experience. A recent audit by the Department’s Inspector General confirmed that the Department does not actually use this category in calculating the performance scores.
The obstacles we faced in getting this information are unfortunately business as usual for the Department. The Department routinely uses a stonewalling strategy by failing to respond to FOIA requests or providing useless information. While increased transparency will not solve all student debt problems, improvement in these areas can help restore the balance between borrower rights and extraordinary government collection powers. The government has nearly unlimited power to collect student loans. At a minimum, the government must be accountable to the public about how it uses this power and how much it costs all of us in the long run. FOIA requests are one way to get this information (or try to get it), but most of this information should be publicly available to anyone on the Department’s web site.
Here’s hoping that 2015 will bring in a new era of transparency and accountability at the Department of Education.