THE PRESIDENT threatens to confirm the Republican caricature of his final budget as a mail-order catalogue in which the strong proposals are lost among too many flimsy ones whose principal purpose is to score political points in an election year. An example is the proposal trotted out the other day to provide a further $30 billion over 10 years in increased college student aid.

Most of the money would be in the form of a tax break that would do little to increase access to higher education among those too poor to afford it. Rather, in what remains a tight budget era, the proposals would mainly defray the costs of middle- and upper-middle-income students who would likely attend college anyway. It would come on top of a 1997 Clinton initiative, also in the form of tax breaks, that constituted about a 50 percent increase in federal aid to higher education. Much of that money also went to the middle class, though over time the colleges are likely to be the major beneficiaries, in that they will feel freer than otherwise to raise their rates.

Obviously, this further conversion of the cost of college into an implied entitlement would be popular. But higher education already is heavily subsidized, at the state even more than at the federal level. Access to higher education is a great equalizer, but most Americans who want a higher education now can get it; nor is the administration proposal tilted toward those who continue to be denied. There are better uses for $30 billion over 10 years; even within the field of education, better to spend it on the early years when so many children are left behind.

Aides say that, because other aspects of the president's budget are heavily tilted toward the poor, this should be given a bye. They argue that the president's proposal is more progressive than the congressional one on which it is based, and that his budget, whatever its weaknesses, remains preferable to those that Republicans are proposing. Can that really be the standard he wants to be judged by?

Part of his purpose is also said to be defensive. If the Republicans are bound to grant a tax cut, he would hope to capture some of the proceeds for his own favored purposes, as he did in 1997. But that's too acquiescent a position, and too weak a justification for a bad idea.