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Bay Area Legal Aid v. U.S. Department of Education

Under federal law, student borrowers are entitled to discharge of their federal student loans if they can show that the school they took out the loans to attend falsely certified their eligibility for loans, including by falsely indicating that the student would be able to benefit from the program at issue. The Department of Education (ED) asks borrowers to provide “corroborating evidence” with their applications for this relief. One such form of evidence is applications submitted by borrowers who attended the same program.

As part of its work assisting borrowers applying for false certification discharges, Bay Area Legal Aid, a California legal services provider, submitted a FOIA request for the false certification discharge applications submitted by borrowers who had attended Heald College Milpitas/San Jose, a for-profit college owned by Corinthian Colleges, which collapsed among revelations of fraud and improper conduct. When ED eventually provided these applications, it redacted not only personal-identifying information, but also the years of attendance and programs in which borrowers had enrolled. ED claimed that, even without student names or other identifying information, disclosing the years and programs of enrollment would violate students’ privacy.

In January 2021, Bay Area Legal Aid, represented by Public Citizen Litigation Group, filed suit seeking disclosure of the redacted the years of attendance and programs. In response to the lawsuit, ED re-produced the requested documents without the challenged redactions.