A minor but not insignificant dialogue took place on Capitol Hill the very same morning that Robert Bork began his grand interrogation, passing unnoted even in the commodious Washington Post. It took place within the hearing chambers of the House Education subcommittee, where Undersecretary of Education Chester Finn had been invited to testify on the high costs of college education.

Finn made much of a recent study conducted within his department's research offices and published under the title "Estimating the Cost of a Bachelor's Degree: An Institutional Cost Analysis." To the interested layman, not versed in regression analysis or other recondite techniques of professional research, this study is not only unreadable but somewhat mystifying, since the baccalaureate degree in America is awarded by more than 2,000 institutions ranging from prestigious research universities to those calling themselves colleges but offering curricula just this side of vocational education. Do we share a common cost for the AB degree? If so, there would be good reason to question why our tuitions vary so widely.

This study, circulated by the department in prepublication proofs, stirred a hornet's nest of reaction among research experts who questioned both its facts and its methodology. (The study suggests that the most "efficient" size of a university lies beyond 20,000 students.) More important, it provoked angry reactions among leaders of higher education, both public and private, directed at its motivation. Richard Rosser, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, labeled the report "a blatantly political document" as well as "an irresponsible attempt to manipulate data to pit public institutions against the private sector."

Naturally, the congressmen on the Education Committee were curious, and Finn maintained sardonic composure as he and his research associate, Duc-Le To, sought to defend their report while acknowledging there could be methodological and data improvements as this major inquiry continues into the future. Committee members, Republican and Democrat, asked thoughtful questions, but clearly they were at sea amid the hieroglyphics. So were the four college presidents invited to serve as commentators, who patiently waited our turn while Finn hurried off to tend to more urgent duties.

As leadoff witness on this panel, I suggested that whatever its methodology, the study was a "red herring" designed to add weight to the Department of Education's reputation for scholarly gravitas even as its chief officers continue to serve as loose cannons or -- a better metaphor -- hipshooters in their guerrilla warfare against the nation's colleges. Two responses by Finn that morning provided example: when asked about default on student loans, he replied with an edge of sarcasm that perhaps the students don't believe they are getting value for their money. This is an awesome indictment, yet the undersecretary offered no research data to sustain it.

A second time he volunteered that he had taken his own daughter college-shopping and had been stunned by the vast "waste" of expensive plant and equipment lying empty during the summer months. Nobody asked Finn which campuses he visited. Almost every college president I know works eight-day weeks to schedule summer programs as well as lease campus facilities to others for maximum utilization. We have boards of trustees with tough management committees that hold our noses to the grindstone of budget balancing.

But Finn is simply parroting his boss, Secretary William Bennett, who has appointed himself chief scold of higher education and takes particular delight in castigating the relatively few top tuition colleges, including his own alma mater. Last spring, on the op-ed page of The New York Times, Bennett attacked higher education, en masse, as "underaccountable and underproductive." He accused us of the sin of greed, of profiteering from the Federal Guaranteed Loan Program, which allows students and parents to make their own choice among higher- and lower-cost institutions. More recently, when the College Board published this fall's tuition increases, Bennett issued a two-sentence press release: "There they go again -- and again and again. When will they ever stop?"

In an open letter to the secretary appearing in The New York Times, I reviewed Washington College's financial facts of life and invited him to examine us for evidence of waste, fraud and abuse -- or, for that matter, secret Swiss bank accounts. Our students pay two out of every three dollars toward the cost of room, board and tuition. The third dollar comes from earnings on endowment as well as contributions from generous alums and other support. Over 43 percent of our students receive financial aid; the lion's share of the scholarships and grants is generated by the college itself. Each September, we approach school opening in high anxiety over whether Bennett will have managed to frustrate Congress' effort to provide adequate guaranteed loans to the nation's students.

Bennett plays a spiteful game, reminiscent of the one conducted by Secretary James Watt, who headed the Interior Department during Ronald Reagan's first term. Bennett's latest "neat idea" is to use the department's funds as well as its power over accrediting organizations to force colleges to adhere to standards of quality and performance. Within the diversified universe of colleges, this suggests the ideal of a uniform national curriculum to go along with a common cost for the baccalaureate degree. And it justifies the worst premonitions of those who feared that the creation of a unified U.S. Department of Education might result in a Cabinet officer whose ambitions lean more to bigger politics than to higher education. The writer is president of Washington College in Chestertown, Md.