New York, a famously progressive state whose leaders constantly claim student debt should be wiped out and/or that college should be free, sues students who haven’t paid tuition debt and makes it almost impossible for them to defend themselves.

On his way out the door, former Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a $125 million debt relief program that would affect at least 50,000 students at New York’s state-run universities. Yet a new report from The New York Times shows that while New York’s leaders publicly tout debt forgiveness and advocate for free tuition, behind the scenes, the state routinely sues students who don’t pay. Not only that, but the state uses “a quirk in the law” to ensure that students must appear before a judge in Albany to defend themselves, a nearly impossible task for many of the state’s in-debt students who are struggling to get by.

The Times told the story of Amanda Belony, who registered for classes but withdrew before they started due to previous health issues and the fact that she could not afford to live in Plattsburgh, New York to graduate. She missed the withdrawal deadline and was charged for classes she didn’t attend, amounting to $3,705. Belony was sued and told she must appear in court at New York’s Supreme Court in Albany, which was a four-hour bus trip from where she lived with her mother. Belony at the time was working 10-hour days and barely earning enough to pay her bills and help her mother with rent. She feared she could not afford to defend herself and travel to Albany, and that she might lose her job trying to do so.

“Ms. Belony is one of close to 16,000 SUNY students taken to court by the state since 2013. Under a little-known state regulation, New York’s attorney general is allowed to sue students if a state public university claims they owe tuition — or overdue library fines or unpaid parking tickets,” the Times reported. “Unlike almost all regulations governing the collection of debt, a quirk in the law allows the attorney general’s office to file suit in these cases exclusively in State Supreme Court in Albany, regardless of where the student lives or attended college. If a student from SUNY Buffalo, for example, which is 300 miles from Albany, doesn’t show up in court, a judge will rule in the state’s favor and declare the student in default. The student’s wages could be garnished or tax refund withheld.”

Multiple attorneys told the Times that most of the cases end up finding the student in default because they can’t travel to Albany to defend themselves. As the Times noted, New York State Attorney Letitia James has spoken out about tuition debt even as her office continues to target students the way it does. When asked about the discrepancy, she told the Times she has “a legal obligation to collect student debt.”

She didn’t tell the outlet why her office filed so many lawsuits, but said it was working to change how student debt is collected. Just before the Times’ story was published, she sent a letter to state legislators asking for the system to be changed.

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