Those who believe that the sole purpose of educational institutions is to provide education assuming there are such people still around-must be having a hard time following the long fight over Title IX of the 1972 education act. That section requires universities, colleges and secondary schools to give men and women-or boys and girls, as the case may be-equal opportunities if they are to receive federal funds. Yet, just the other day Secretary Joseph Califano promulgated still another policy interpretation of that section. This one, like many of the others to come out of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the last six years, has precious little to do with education. It deals with how colleges are to provide women with equal opportunities in athletics.

Stripped to its essentials, the problem confronting Secretary Califano is this: What can a college that regards football as a major part of its institutional life offer to women athletes that is equal, or even comparable, to what it offers male athletes who play football? Big-time football colleges compete avidly for top players, treat them royally while they are in school, spend large sums on their football programs, and reap the benefits in terms of the large gate receipts and handsome television contracts that a winning team underwrite all or almost all of the costs of the entire intercollegiate athletic program.

Mr. Califano wisely decided not to do what some of these colleges have been urging him to do-exempt this money-making sort from the general rule that expenditures on men's and women's athletics must be proportional to the number of men and women participating. Instead, he is proposing that allowances be made for the high costs of football (or other big-money sports)-expensive equipment, coast-to-coast travel, large coaching staffs, etc. But once that allowance is made, other expenditures must be proportional. That means the schools that pamper their football palyers must provide some of the same kinds of pampering-special food, tutoring, luxury locker rooms-for female athletes in other sports.

The test of this new policy will be in its enforcement. Mr. Califano has indicated he wants to keep the intrusion of HEW into college affairs at a minimum. But the response of college athletic directors to other Title IX policies suggests that is only a hope. The preferences given to football teams have become so much a part of the life of some colleges that they are likely to be regarded as necessary extra costs unless HEW is watching closely.

There is a good deal of common sense in the compromise that Mr. Califano has reached between the views of the football colleges that want nothing changed and of those who argue that these schools should be required to spend an equivalent amount on women's programs. It is about the only way in which colleges can continue to have big-time football teams and meet the requirements of Title IX.

Of course, they could treat big-time football strictly as a commercial enterprise and not burden the participants with books or classroom attendance at all. Or, alternatively, they could abandon big-time football and focus on education. The argument that a lot of colleges should do just that has been gaining force as football has become more of a business and less of a sport. But we do not expect that argument will carry the day. About the most to be hoped for is that Title IX and the Califano interpretion will put the brakes on the growth of college football before the pursuit of the bowl game actually becomes bigger, in the eyes of a good educational institution, than the pursuit of learning.