SINCE IT WAS started nine years ago, over six million people have used the federally insured Guaranteed Student Loan Program to help finance their post-secondary education. Most are making good on their obligation, both to the federal government and to future needy students, to repay the loans.But some are not. These people - 344,000 of them - have refused to pay. Although this group constitutes only a fraction of those involved, their being able to default with ease on the loans undermines the program's credibility. And not even the federal government can afford to write off the amount of money these deliquents collectively owe: over $400 million.

So, it's good news that officials in the U.S. Office of Education, whose supervision of the GSL repayment effort has been hampered by lack of adequate staff, are continuing their recently stepped-up pursuit of defaulters. Earlier this year they mailed a blunt letter to specially targeted groups of delinquents demanding repayment. Now they are about to notify those who didn't respond that their accounts will soon be turned over to private collection agencies. These agencies' greater flexibility in hiring workers should produce the kind of pursuit the federal office simply isn't able to mount. In addition, federal officials say they've set up a new computerized billing system that in the future will make it much tougher for delinquents to escape detection for long periods of time.

Perhaps it is true, as some say, that the distressing current situation is caused not by a willful intent not to repay but rather by the high unemployment rate among youth, students misreading the terms of the loan, and the itinerant life many students lead immediately after graduation. But surely theseex-students must be made to acknowledge their responsibilities. They have a debt to pay.