One of the most tragic books ever written is The Thread That Runs So True by Jesse Stuart.  A fictionalized autobiography, the book traces Stuart’s real-life progress from teaching in a one-room schoolhouse to being superintendent of a large school district, with an ongoing theme:  how closely education is tied to finances and politics.  It ends when Stuart has to leave education and become a sheep farmer in order to afford to get married.

In this age of high-powered teacher unions, many forget the image of the underpaid teacher.  (HINT:  look at private schools and see 30-year veterans making less than $20,000/year.)  But the link between education and finances is still very real.  We see it every day in the calls for more cash for classrooms–more state lotteries to benefit schools, more government programs, the need for more technology and improved facilities, increasing property taxes even in the face of declining property values–and the list goes on and on.

But one of the least-understood aspects of the educational/financial relationship involves student loans.  While other debts can be forgiven in bankruptcy, student loans cannot; and when those loans are federally-guaranteed, the consequences of nonpayment can be dramatic–including the reduction of Social Security retirement benefits.  (See the article here for details.)

Once upon a time, a student could work his way through school; not any more.  Not long ago, families understood that while college was a good thing, it was not necessarily an affordable option, so the young people entered the work force instead of racking up thousands in debt.  Before school loans were guaranteed, banks had the choice of denying payouts to those with little likelihood to repay.  The time was when a student graduated in four years and could pay off any school loans in roughly the same amount of time; neither of those timetables are the norm any more.

And, not so long ago in a land not so far away, parents and grandparents who cosigned loans for their loved ones saw to it that the loans got paid.  Apparently, when the going got tough, a lot of people mortgaged their Social Security–and now the tax man has arrived to take possession. 

Don’t feel sorry for the colleges, though.  They got their money.  On time.  Every time.  And still they raise tuition at a rate more than double the rate of inflation.  Go figure.