In recent years there have been so many oracular reports on higher-education policy in America that the most recent of them, by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, could easily get lost in the shuffle. Much of what it says merely echoes what other reports have said, and much of its language is so obstinately leaden that the temptation to let it go unread is considerable. But the temptation must be resisted, for an important argument is made in this document, one that has too long been overlooked.

The report is the work of Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States. Like most who think deep thoughts about higher education, Newman has a penchant for belaboring the obvious and for speaking in the curiously latinate language that the educationists favor. But he has also given his subject the most careful consideration, and one of his conclusions not merely merits but demands serious debate.

Newman thinks public policy toward student aid must be redirected so that it actively encourages, if not requires, public service in repayment. "For all of the cynicism about political life in this country," he writes, "for all of the worry about the TV-created passiveness and self-interest of young people, there remains deep in the American psyche a belief in the ideal of service to country as a proper step to adulthood. It is like a quietly burning ember, waiting to be fanned into a visible flame."

That may be overstating matters a bit, but the essential point is absolutely true: Not merely that there is a strong tradition of support among Americans for public service by youths but also, by implication, that the country lost something important with the disap- pearance of the military draft, the most widespread form of such service the country has thus far adopted. Newman, as it happens, mentions military service only in connection with the GI Bill and argues for voluntary rather than compulsory service; but it is just about impossible to consider his suggestions without also considering the possibility of returning to mandatory public service.

The benefits of public service are succinctly and accurately summarized by Newman: " . . . getting something done for society that needs doing, providing opportunities for personal growth for young men and women, and -- most important -- burnishing the ideal of service in the youth of the country." Somewhat inexplicably, though, he goes on to say that "although service in some form for essentially all young men and women is desirable, a voluntary program would be more effective than any compulsory system." How so? Newman does not say, presumably counting on us to assume that any undertaking done voluntarily will be more effectively accomplished than one done compulsorily; the difficulty, though, is that there is not much of a tradition in this country of voluntary sacrifice -- and public service, like it or not, is sacrifice.

It is Newman's belief that voluntarism can be accomplished through the several carrot-and-stick programs he suggests, in which student aid is tied to community service, work-study and other enterprises that benefit the public as well as the student. All of these programs are attractive, and their adoption surely would be an improvement over the present system of student loans -- which, as he pointedly notes, can have the effect of saddling students with heavy postgraduate debts and thus "inhibit the willingness of graduates to take further risks" in their careers. But the trouble with his proposal is that except for a rather offhand mention of high school students, Newman is talking solely about public service for collegians.

Yes, it is true, as Newman says, that it is "from among college students that the country's leadership emerges," but it is even more true that ours is at least theoretically an egalitarian society in which both opportunities and obligations are equally distributed among all. The franchise is universal, as is the requirement to do jury duty; perhaps the educated fulfil these duties of citizenship more knowledgeably than others, but our society does not make education a requirement for either of them. Why then should it effectively restrict "voluntary" public service to that 75 percent of college students who receive financial assistance in one form or another?

Quite simply, it shouldn't. To the contrary, it should revive mandatory military or public service and then make it what it never was in the past, genuinely universal. Every American, excepting only those with extreme physical or mental handicaps or illnesses, should be required to give the country two years of service before entering adult life. The exemptions that in the past benefited the privileged or the lucky should be eliminated; under such a system, the trick knee that kept me out of the Army a quarter-century ago would not bar me from working in the Peace Corps, or the Teacher Corps, or the National Health Service Corps.

In one respect at least, such a system should be more flexible than it was in the past. Except in times of national emergency, a young person's service should be at his or her convenience. It could be undertaken between high school and college, as a break during college, between college and graduate school, even at the end of medical internship. There is no particular reason why public service requirements should arbitrarily disrupt a person's education or training, and this should be taken into account. But every young person would have to understand one inescapable fact of life: Sooner or later those two years would have to be served, no exceptions permitted.

There are any number of reasons why this should be done. For the poor or otherwise disadvantaged, public service would provide exposure to youths from different backgrounds -- vice versa also being true, it goes with- out saying -- and train them for productive occupations. The return of universal public service should reverse the trend toward a professional military isolated from the concerns and realities of civilian life. The expansion of the definition of public service to include nonmilitary activities would bring youthful energies to bear on many large problems desperately in need of attention.

But the most important reason is that the country has lost sight of public service as an obligation of citizenship. The wave of selfishness now sweeping over the country may be, as some have argued, a cyclical phenomenon that eventually will ebb, but in the present national mood we urgently need not merely to remind ourselves of the need to sacrifice, but to do something about it. That something is universal and compulsory public service -- but service for all, not merely those whom we choose to bless with assistance toward college degrees. In a country that truly believes in the responsibilities of citizenship, there can be no exceptions.