AT LAST, a new idea.

Let us today salute educator Frank Newman, who has come up with one that is also good.

Newman, former president of the University of Rhode Island, wrote a report for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in which he puts forward a notion that could benefit our college youth and the rest of the country as well.

His proposal: the federal government should curtail its massive loan program for college students and require them to perform community service work in exchange for financial aid.

His recommendation could address two ills, the ever-soaring cost of higher education and the literally sorry state of our youth.

Everyone knows that youth has stopped being young. Dr. Newman suggests one of the reasons: they are so saddled with huge loan debts they think about money most o the time. Their dreams are of stock portfolios; their risks are connected with breaking into corporate computer codes. They can't even be lighthearted any more. Granted that goldfish swallowing and telephone booth cramming weren't exactly exemplary activities, they contributed to the idea that young people were exercising their right to be silly.

When you think of what has happened under the Guaranteed Student Loan Program of 1965, you realize the force of the cynical axiom that "no good deed goes unpunished" and the truth of Udall's Law of Unintended Consequences. Congress had the totally laudable intention of putting a college education within reach of everyone who aspired to one.

It certainly never meant to make our youth prematurely elderly and selfish.

Nobody who lived through them wants to go back to the '60s, the hair and the rage and the soaplessness. On the other hand, today's college youth is unnaturally clean- cut. They may not wear the three-piece suits they expect to don, immediately on graduation, but that is what they wear on their souls.

They vote conservative, tune out the world's losers, set their sights on the chilly precincts of Yuppiness. The National College Testing Service has figures which show they start college that way. In the '60, a majority of entering students, when asked why they want to go to college, said they wanted to improve the world or make themselves better persons. Today, 75 percent say starkly that they want to make more money.

Newman tells us why. Indebted college students know they will not be able to contribute to the common good once they have their diplomas. They cannot afford to take low-paying community service and public-sector jobs.

Says Newman in the report: "A student who leaves college with a large debt burden may well feel he has already assumed all the risk that he possibly should.

"Working one's way through colle is a cherished American concept," he declares.

But working one's way through in the '60s is not the same thing as in the '80s. In 1960, at Brown University, Newman's alma mater, the tuition was $1,400. Today, tuition at Brown is $9,940.

Of course, some indebted graduates solve the problem of repayment by becoming deadbeats. But skipping out on the bill does not add to a sense of self- worth or the ability to look other people in the eye, two of the intangible goals of higher education.

Newman's plan is an adaptation of the ROTC program to civilian uses. ROTC students have their college paid. In return the student must do weekend drill and upon graduation serve four years in the military.

His program could answer the crying need for teachers. Students would pay back their government loans by spending a weekend a month in teacher training, he suggests, spend a summer in a ghetto school bringing children up to grade level in reading and math. Upon graduation, they would give back four years of college by teaching.

It is probably sad that America's young would have to be paid to be idealistic and altruistic. In the '60s, when John F. Kennedy sounded the trumpet, young people flocked to Washington to take low- paying government jobs, swamped the Peace Corps with applications. Public service was totally in.

"They heard the call then," says Newman. "Now what they hear from Washington is, 'Get yours.'"

Newman thinks they will respond if someone asks them, that they will help out -- will tutor poor children, read aloud to old people and ferry them about to the grocery store and the doctor, help build the facilities needed in places like Appalachia and generally give a hand if they are asked.

Read "Higher Education and the American Resurgence." It will give you hope.