The good news is that, after an unseemly decision-making delay in the White House and the usual confirmation delay in the Senate, William Bennett is at last in office as secretary of education. The better news is that his elevation into the stratosphere of Washington mucky-muckdom has not tied Bennett's tongue; his sharp, combative words last week on student loans and the present state of higher education gave ample evidence that his time in office promises to be controversial and, more to the point, dynamic.

In his first news conference since joining the Cabinet, Bennett came out swinging. He vigorously supported the reductions in federal student aid loans that are proposed in the Reagan budget, contending that "tightening the belt can have the function of concentrating the mind" and disputing "the notion that the federal government has a responsibility to assure that every student can go to the school of his or her choice." In a telling, if somewhat mean, swipe at the self-indulgent children of affluent middle-class America, he noted that reductions in aid could lead to "divestiture of certain sorts -- stereo divestiture, automobile divestiture, three-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture."

Student loans having been thus disposed of, Bennett then sat down with a reporter from The New York Times and delivered himself of a few thunderations on higher education. "Most colleges promise to make you better culturally and morally," he said, "but it is not evident that they do. They are not delivering on their promises." Furthermore: "Some are not well run, some are mismanaged, some are just not delivering. There are good grounds for suspicion that some students are not getting their money's worth. Some people are getting ripped off."

These tart words raised the predictable outcries in the predictable places. College presidents and education lobbyists arose en masse to attack both the proposed student loan reductions and Bennett's words on behalf of them. Great moans issued forth about the right of all students to a college education and the responsibility of the government to ensure that they get it; the dire threat was raised that private institutions would once again become the exclusive property of the wealthy; the grim prospect was put forward that some colleges might eventually have to close down.

None of this reaction was in the least surprising, for Bennett's words struck right to the heart of what the middle class imagines are its special entitlements. Since the end of World War II and the establishment of the GI Bill of Rights, it has been assumed that a college education is a middle-class entitlement to be underwritten, where necessary, with public funds; in that same period the academic community has assumed that it is similarly entitled to exist in the bloated condition it has come to take for granted in the postwar boom. Inasmuch as the Reagan budget and the Bennett comments question the future of those entitlements, it is small wonder that the special interests rose up in outrage.

What these interests really cannot bear to acknowledge is that Bennett was engaged, however pugnaciously, in a much-needed exercise in truth-telling. By focusing its complaints narrowly on the issue of student loans, the academic world fails to understand that Bennett was actually talking about much larger and more important matters. Reducing the student loan program, and making its funds available primarily to those deserving students who urgently need them, is only the tip of Bennett's iceberg; underneath it lies, if my sense of what he is up to is correct, a full-scale effort to reshape American higher education, to get it out of the business of featherbedding and into the business of teaching.

Quite simply, Bennett wants a revolution in higher education. He believes, with a passion we too rarely encounter among the complacent, self-aggrandizing power seekers of Washington, that higher education is in a condition of pervasive mediocrity, the result of too much growth, too much license, too much arrogance. He believes, if I read him right, that as a consequence of unplanned and unchecked democratization, higher education is no longer higher: college has become a glorified high school that promises an advanced education but delivers little more than four years of precareer baby-sitting. He believes that it is time for us to face reality, to save our colleges and universities from their own vices and indulgences; it is time, that is, for college to become not a "right," but a privilege to be made available only to those who can genuinely profit from it.

So here the dirty word comes out of the closet: "elitism." Not merely does Bennett believe, correctly, that the federal government is under no obligation to assure that any person can attend any old college his heart desires. He further believes that college is a place for those with the minds and dedication to profit from it, not for just any person who somehow manages the singularly unimpressive feat of graduating from an American high school. College is not for everybody, and not everybody is for college; this may seem an obvious truth, but it's one we've long since lost sight of in our insane race to wrap every American in sheepskin.

Bennett may be talking about elitism, but it's scarcely economic or social. His is an elite of the mind. The means test he would impose for college admission is not financial or social, but intellectual. What a revolutionary notion! How shocking! Why, prospective students might actually have to sit down and analyze their motives for applying before actually doing so, and colleges might actually have to devise curricula that would meet the needs of their students rather than the professional ambitions of their professors.

In almost everything Bennett has written or said on the subject since taking over the National Endowment for the Humanities four years ago, the underlying argument has been that American higher education demands a radical overhaul: a return to first principles that would strip away the layers of academic fat in which our colleges and universities now wallow. He understands that the odd fellow out in higher education today is the student: the bright, ambitious student whose needs are not met by the academic bureaucracy and its irrelevant courses, and the equally bright, ambitious student whose needs would be better served in trade school or the marketplace.

There can be no doubt that if we take even a step or two toward Bennett's vision of what higher education should be, many oxen will be gored. As the first week of it made all too clear, the fight will be noisy and bloody. Too, Bennett will not always be right and, in his zest for the arena, he may misspeak himself. But what we had better understand, right from the start, is that the man is doing us a favor. He is making us think, not merely about what higher education should do, but about what, as members of the middle class, our vested interests in it are. He is a serious man with a serious mission, and it is time we started paying him serious attention.