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Amanda Belony was rushing to work when she saw a fat yellow envelope sitting on her kitchen table. She opened it and immediately noticed the New York attorney general’s official seal sitting ominously at the top of the page. The state had filed a lawsuit against her for unpaid college tuition.

Belony had registered for classes at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh in the spring of 2016, when she was 21, but she’d had severe health problems the previous semester and could no longer afford to live in Plattsburgh to finish her degree. Because she missed the withdrawal deadline for the spring semester, she said, she was charged for classes she never took, and now the state was suing her for $3,705.

The only way she could defend herself was to appear in State Supreme Court in Albany — 160 miles from her home in Brooklyn. Otherwise, the letter stated, a judgment would be entered against her.

Amanda Belony of Brooklyn, N.Y., was sued by the state attorney general’s office for $3,705 for classes she said she never took; traveling to Albany to appear in court would have been expensive and, she feared, could have jeopardized her job. Without a degree, she had to work low-wage jobs to pay off the settlement of $2,900, which she was finally able to do in 2019. Credit: Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

Belony was working 10-hour days as a clerical assistant in a medical clinic at the time, making just enough to pay her bills and help her mother with the rent. Trips to the Albany court to try to defend herself would be expensive, and she worried she would lose her job.

“I remember looking at this document, with all this legal jargon that I didn’t understand,” Belony said. She needed just three credits to graduate, but until she settled the case, she couldn’t re-enroll to finish her degree in hopes of getting a better-paying job. “I didn’t have the money. I knew I needed a lawyer, and I knew I couldn’t afford one.”

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.

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, a judge will rule in the state’s favor and declare the student in default. That can trigger the garnishing of wages and tax refunds.

A majority of these cases end in default, according to several lawyers who represent students, since most students can’t make the several trips to Albany that would be required before a trial is even set.

Hidden Debt Trap

There’s a whole world of student debt that no one is talking about. In fact, most people don’t even realize it exists. Millions of students have racked up billions of dollars in debt owed directly to their own colleges and universities. 

We’re investigating this hidden debt.

Attorney General Letitia James, who took office in 2019, has often spoken out in defense of students struggling with tuition debt; she has advocated for debt relief programs and has suspended SUNY debt collection during the pandemic.

Asked about the law that allows SUNY colleges to refer student debtors to her office, she said that the attorney general has “a legal obligation to collect student debt.”

Although she did not say why lawsuits had been used so often to do so, she said her office is working on ways to change debt collection practices.  Last week she sent a letter to legislative leaders proposing to work with them on overhauling the system. One suggestion was to give the attorney general’s office more flexibility in reaching settlements. 

“This work is far from over,” James said in an email, “and we look forward to working with legislators and policymakers to reform student debt collection practices in New York so that all students can achieve the goal of higher education without the crushing burden of debt.”

Students at SUNY Buffalo who are sued by the state for their debts have to appear in State Supreme Court in Albany, 300 miles away, or they are declared in default. Nearly 16,000 students in the SUNY system have been taken to court by the state since 2013. Credit: Malik Rainey for The New York Times

The State University of New York is made up of 64 schools, including community colleges and research universities, spread throughout the state. Nearly 400,000 students were enrolled in the SUNY system last year. Its stated mission of providing a high-quality, affordable education has attracted students from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet many students struggle to pay tuition, even with loans and scholarships.

New York is one of five states — in addition to Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Louisiana — that permit public colleges to send overdue debts directly to the state attorney general for collection. New York state regulations do not require the attorney general to take up lawsuits against students. A spokeswoman for the New York attorney general’s office said that before filing suit, the office sends the student three letters seeking payment.

“Litigation is an absolute last resort, as we give borrowers plenty of time to contest the debt at issue and ample opportunity to demonstrate any sort of hardship,” said Delaney Kempner, a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.

Court records suggest otherwise. Between November 2019 and March 2020, at least 110 students were sued within a year of when the college said they had incurred the debt. Some are sued immediately after leaving college. One student from SUNY Potsdam who, according to court records, owed money from the 2019 spring semester was sued for $2,435 in December 2019. 

The decision to file the lawsuits in State Supreme Court in Albany has been a considerable barrier for students who don’t live nearby. Buffalo, which is home to two SUNY universities that enroll close to 30,000 undergraduates combined, is four hours by car from Albany and six hours by bus. SUNY Fredonia, on the shore of Lake Erie, is five hours by car and more than seven hours by public transportation.

Related: Public colleges shock students by sending them to costly debt collection agencies

In 2014, New York state enacted a consumer protection law that requires that debtors be sued in the county where they live. But medical debt and student debt are exempt from the law, despite objections by student advocates.

Still, the attorney general could decide to sue in counties other than Albany, which would make it easier for students to defend themselves.

“There’s no due process if they’re suing you in Albany,” said Johnson Tyler, a South Brooklyn Legal Services lawyer who says he gets at least one call a week from someone who wants to finish a degree but can’t because of student debt. “How can you have due process when you have to get on a bus and travel hundreds of miles away, and you have to go again and again and again?”

Earlier this year, Assemblyman Harvey Epstein, a Democrat from Manhattan,  introduced a bill that would require the attorney general to sue students only in the county or city where they live.

“It’s ridiculous that students are being sued in Albany,” said Epstein, who also questions the practice of lawsuits as a means of collecting student debt. “It may be more convenient for the AG’s office, but it makes it almost impossible for low-income students to defend themselves. They can’t get to Albany, they can’t get a lawyer. We are really disadvantaging people who are already disadvantaged.”

Kempner said that students who are sued have the initialoption of disputing their case electronically or by mail. But if the attorney general’s office decides to proceed with the case, the student or his or her lawyer must appear in Albany.

After several inquiries from The Hechinger Report and The New York Times about why students are sued only in Albany, Kempner said this week that the office plans to change the practice and file cases in different counties in the future.

The decision to sue in Albany has, over the years, put many students into default. Data provided by the attorney general’s office shows the high likelihood of default judgments: From 2017 through 2019, an average of 3,000 lawsuits were filed every year. Over those three years, an average of 2,500 lawsuits (filed in various years) ended with a default judgment.

Carlotta Summers, who attended SUNY Fredonia, didn’t realize she had been sued by the state of New York until the tax refund she was expecting in 2019 never appeared. Her original bill of $7,000 now stands at more than $20,000, she says, due to interest and collection fees. Credit: Thalia Juarez for The New York Times

Beyond that, many students say they were unaware that they had even been sued. Carlotta Summers, who attended SUNY Fredonia, came to realize she had been sued only when the tax refund she was expecting in 2019 never appeared. Her refunds were also taken in 2015 and 2018, but she said she assumed she had made a mistake in filing.

But after it happened for a third time, she called the Civil Recoveries Bureau, a part of the attorney general’s office, which told her that her refund had been withheld because she had been sued but wouldn’t say why. The court records weren’t online, and she said the county clerk at the Supreme Court in Albany wouldn’t send them to her. So her father sent a courier to Albany to get the court records. Only then did she discover that she had been sued for overdue tuition and that a default judgment had been entered against her when she failed to appear before the judge.

The university said she owed $7,000 from a semester she spent at the college in the spring of 2009, when she was 19. She was unaware that she owed money, and says her bill now stands at more than $20,000 because of interest and collection fees. She filed a motion to get the default judgment overturned, saying she would have appeared in court had she known she was being sued. The judge ruled against her, and she’s appealing.

A SUNY Fredonia spokesman said in an email that the university couldn’t comment on individual cases but that its student accounts office tries to contact students to resolve with payment plans, to avoid sending them to the attorney general’s office.

“The amount I owe is more than the amount I make per year,” said Summers, 31, who works as a teaching assistant while she pursues a career in film. “I worry about it all the time. I lose sleep over it. It’s the debt, but it’s also the fact that I’m being taken advantage of. It’s hard to fight a system that’s so big.”

Advocates say that Ms. Summers’s experience echoes those of other students overwhelmed by debt.

“In cases where students have fallen behind, you’re adding interest and fees on top of that,” said Anna Anderson, a lawyer at Legal Assistance of Western New York. On top of the original amount owed, as well as the interest and fees added by the college, the attorney general’s office can charge interest of up to 9 percent, more than twice the rate of federal student loans. Some students have seen their debt balloon by 40 percent or more in less than two years.

“You’re asking a student who had trouble paying their bills in the first place — maybe it was health issues or family issues or job loss — to pay more than they owed originally.”

Before the moratorium, the pace of lawsuits brought against SUNY students had been steadily increasing. From 2008 to 2012, the state filed an average of 1,250 lawsuits against students each year, according to data obtained through a FOIL request. From 2018 to 2020, the average was 3,000 a year.

The increased pace of lawsuits has dovetailed with the rise in tuition at SUNY colleges. At the same time, student loans and grants have covered less of the cost of attending. The total cost of attendance at four-year SUNY colleges for in-state students currently averages more than $26,000 per year.

“For the past decade, prices have been going up, but the amount of funding students get has stayed flat, and that leaves a gap in their bills,” said Beth Todd, director of student accounts at SUNY Potsdam. “It’s also a question of financial literacy. Students who withdraw don’t always understand that after four weeks of classes, they’re on the hook for the whole bill.”

Related: In Massachusetts, public colleges send debt collectors after nearly 12,000 students

Putting aside the issue of whether the debt collection efforts of the attorney general’s office are fair to students, they appear to have had limited success. For example, in the year leading up to the pandemic, the total amount owed was $242.7 million; only $11.8 million of that has been collected, according to data provided by the office.

SUNY Buffalo, one of two SUNY universities in the city that enroll close to 30,000 undergraduates combined. Students there and elsewhere in the system are sued for overdue bills in the State Supreme Court in Albany, 300 miles away. Credit: Malik Rainey for The New York Times

The practice of suing students goes back nearly three decades, to a time when the state budget was under strain and efforts to collect debt were ramped up. In 1993, the state issued a regulation requiring all state agencies, including SUNY, to refer overdue debts to either a private collection agency or the attorney general’s office after 99 days. The debt also can be certified with the Department of Taxation and Finance so that tax refunds can be garnished.

SUNY then issued its own guidance mandating the referral of debts owed after a semester that are between $500 and $9,999 to a collection agency or the attorney general’s office. (Debts of  $10,000 or more must be referred to the attorney general’s office.) The state can then choose to sue a student to recover the debt. 

Like most universities, SUNY colleges will not release a transcript or allow a student to re-enroll if the student has an overdue balance. Once a debt is referred to the attorney general’s office, a student can no longer work with a campus financial aid counselor to find a solution.

Administrators at some SUNY campuses use alternatives to legal action. Students at SUNY New Paltz, for example, are sued at a lower rate than those at some other colleges with a similar-sized student population. About 75 New Paltz students have been sued since 2013, according to records obtained through a FOIL request.

The university manages to keep most of its collection efforts in-house, said Jeff Gant, vice president for enrollment management at New Paltz. It uses a data alert system to find students who are behind on their bills and notify the student’s financial aid counselor and academic adviser, who then reach out to the student. The school also offers alumni-funded completion grants, usually between $1,000 and $5,000, to help students who are close to graduating but have run into financial hardship.

“Our focus is less about debt collection and more about trying to make sure students never get in that situation in the first place,” said Gant.

Belony says she wishes she had had this kind of help.

She never found a lawyer who could represent her. Without her degree, she was consigned to a series of low-wage jobs with long hours. Her federal student loans also came due, and there were months where she barely made her rent.

“I was just really, really sad,” she said. “I always had it in my head that I was going to go to college. My mom was drilling into me the importance of college ever since elementary school. I think it was because she never got to go to college, and she had to work so hard.

“She never made enough money. Lots of nights we just boiled hot dogs for dinner. That was all we could afford.”

After Belony was notified about the lawsuit and realized she didn’t have a way to defend herself in court, she contacted the attorney general’s office several times to ask for a lower settlement.

“I was literally begging them. I told them I had no money,” she said. “I tried to ask, could I pay them maybe $500, or just let me finish school, and then I can get enough money to pay them.”

The attorney general’s office finally agreed to a $2,900 settlement, most of which was penalties and fines.

A spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office said it disputed some of Belony’s claims but couldn’t comment specifically because of privacy concerns.

After about a year of working at the medical office and searching for a better-paying job, Belony got hired as a salesperson at a luxury store at Kennedy Airport, where she could earn a commission on top of her hourly wage.

For two years, she made the hourlong commute each way and worked as many hours as she could get.

“I didn’t go out, I didn’t buy anything, I just worked and saved,” she said.

In 2019, almost four years after her last class at Plattsburgh, she finally paid off the settlement. A few weeks later, she sat for a three-hour online test and earned the three credits she needed to graduate. She’s now trying to repair her credit and take care of her mother, who just had a stroke. She’s also enrolled in a master’s degree program at New York University, using what is left of her federal student loans, determined to fulfill her dream of becoming a clinical psychologist.

“I wasn’t sure I was going to make it here. Sometimes I lost hope,” she said, sitting in her Brooklyn apartment, which she shares with her sister and niece. “But I just kept trying.”

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Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

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  1. As a former Suny New Paltz student attending the 2013/2014 academic year I am beyond shocked by the college representative who has indicated that they attempt to work with the student ad I was randomly served with papers come the fall of 2015 and informed that Suny New Paltz who not only would receive both state and federal grants as well as loans amounting yo well over my tuition fees was suing me for unpaid debt stemming from the Spring 2014 academic semester where I would obtain an approval through the campus president ro withdraw due to circumstances out if my control In March just weeks before the semester withdrawal cut off date, however this would not be an issue or reasoning for their outstanding bill. Prior to being served with these papers I did not receive a single letter from the attorney generals office of Suny New Paltz who I would call immediately and was mislead by student accounts who would indicate that they do not see any holds on my account or indications though the attorney generals office would indicate the opposite. With covid pause of student loan debt and my working with my current lender I begin the process of thoroughly looking into charges imposed on me through the 2 Suny New York State colleges I attended 2 of which community colleges and while my first time attending stems as far back as 1999 and I am a still granted access to my online student account I have been restricted by Columbia Greene community and informed that to much time had passed since I had graduated in 2013 and if I wanted any information I had ro place it in writing and request it if student accounts however beings I have come across some major discrepancies regarding excessive billing, failure to return unused aid and loans I deem it pretty unnerving that this college is permitted to restrict my ability to access my.account information online. I am currently seeking a lawyers as what has occurred to me a since the very first semester thatnI would attend a Suny NYS community college were I would be left with no.cjocice but to withdraw as I was unable to obatin transportation and although I would advise my academic advisor or circumstances I would not be provided any additional information relating to financial aid other then being informed I was eligible would be receiving both state and federal grants that would pay for my books and tuition. One would think I would be provied more especially if providing me this information could potentially prevent my withdrawal instead I was advised the steps to take in order to withdraw without penalty. My aid I recently learned would not ve returned and although my sstudent account still to thus day indicates financial aid credits remain, my account has been zeroed out as disbursement have now been used as billing to an extent in which is hard to believe. I am sure this began due to my inability to obtain support from my parents and navigating the process on my own, as I would never question the information in which I was provided. However I have learned that thousands of dollars in lifetime aid have been retained on my behalf never for me to use again. And the audacity to attempt to sue me this last semester for what would have been a disbursement in which I would not obtain due to my sudden withdrawal is just insanely the method use my Suny NYS campuses apparently

  2. I am a former Suny New Paltz student who was served with pending lawsuit for unpaid fees acquired during the Spring semester of 2013 although I did not obtain any prior indication that I owed money, and the college obtain both federal and state grants and loans on my behalf, and although I would receive the approval to withdraw mid- way through the Spring semester never obtaining loans I would have received, they never returned these funds, and would indicate that no funds were received on my 1098-T. Following being sued I immediately called records and registration spoke to student billing and advised by them that they could not find any money indicated as being owed, I would contact our attorney generals office indicating what I was told and would not hear a word back from them. Due to the pause on student loan payments, I would work with my creditor as I was in default and during this process would begin accessing my student accounts through the three Suny NYS community colleges and New Paltz and would discover that major discrepancies regarding student aid had occurred as well as loans. When I recontacted our state attorney generals office I was advised that the statue of limitations has since past although I had been sued by New Paltz for the fall 2014 semester that I was not enrolled in, they obtain federal and state aid and loans. I am just SOL, the community colleges I attended had obtained and never returned student loans and aid on my behalf and have since placed these what would have been disbursements as charges within my student account that indicates credits though have since been zeroed out. Yet when I make a complaint through the department of education the colleges simple assertion that the information they have provided is correct, but disregard the fact and actual information I have. Suny New York State rips off its low-income students, withholds aid and loans, and when situations like mine arise, they triple dip into the capitalization by suing meanwhile falsifying information. Thousands of dollars I have to pay that I never received, thousands in aid that is considered lifetime eligiblity I can never access yet they line their accounts with these funds. Who care its just another low income individual who does not know their ass from a hole in a ground, and she will complain but cant afford a lawyer so we have no worries. The New York American way!!

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