AMONG LAWS benefiting the District of Columbia, the College Access Act, signed into law Saturday, ranks right up there with the Home Rule Act, the Revitalization Act, and major tax incentive measures now on the books. That is the view of the act's chief congressional sponsors, Rep. Thomas Davis (R-Va.), Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), and Rep. James Moran (D-Va.). They're right.

The new law puts District high school graduates on a level playing field with students across the country. Beginning next September, it enables them to attend public colleges and universities in Maryland and Virginia at in-state tuition rates--with the federal government paying the difference between those rates and the tuition fees paid by out-of-state students. The law also authorizes $2,500 per student for District residents to attend private universities and colleges in counties adjacent to the District.

The idea of a college access measure arose from a group of business leaders headed by Washington Post publisher Donald Graham and Lucio Noto, chief executive of Mobil Oil. During a session of extreme partisanship, it moved through both houses with bipartisan support under the leadership of Mr. Davis and Mrs. Norton in the House and Ohio Republican George Voinovich in the Senate.

This initiative is not limited to tuition costs. A private-sector effort has also been launched to help students prepare for college and supplement their non-tuition costs. To date, more than $17 million in private-sector commitments has been raised to supplement the in-state tuition law.

Rep. Davis summed it up last week: "When the educational opportunities are equal, when college is affordable for D.C. residents, as well as Maryland and Virginia residents, we are going to see more District of Columbia students attending college, being trained for the jobs of the future, so they can start businesses, earn good salaries, support their children, return a tax base to the District of Columbia, and make our Nation's Capital the city it deserves to be and has the potential to become."