THE BIG NAME college coaches all said they were horrified at the thought that some high school athletes are actually hiring agents. But what's so terrible about it? It's only the next logical step in the march to concluding that most colleges are fielding professional, not amateur, athletic teams.

The agent idea seems to have orignated with a Silver Spring man who is offering his services to help graduating high school seniors latch onto one of the thousands of athletic scholarships awarded by the nation's universities and colleges each year. The would-be athletic hero (or his family) pays $250 for this professional assistance and forks over 30 percent of the value of the first year of any scholarship he gets. The agent will forgo that commission for any male athlete hired by a school belonging to the National Collegiate Athletic Association. That's because the NCAA rules declare ineligible any male -- but apparently not female -- athlete who pays such a commission.

When he learned of this new operation, the Duke basketball coach said, "That is really, really bad." The Notre Dame athletic director said, "It's an abusive type of thing." "There's no need for a program like this," said the Maryland football coach.

Those schools, of course, are not likely to be interested in the athletes attracted to this new high -- or low -- in agentry. They hire only the "blue-chippers," the super high school athletes that every big-time sports powerhouse wants. Those blue-chippers need agents all right, but not to find "scholarships." They need help in sorting out the offers and in keeping the "recruiters" off their backs.

The vast majority of high school athletes who aren't going to crack the big time, however, are out there looking for places where they can trade their skills on the playing fields for a college education. Given the price of four years in college these days, who can blame them for looking? Schools all over the country are eager to make such trades. And why blame them for seeking professional help? After all, $1,600 for a scholarship worth $18,000 over four years isn't such a bad deal, especially if the recipient never heard of the school until the agent dredged it up.

The fault lies in the system that has made it more important for many colleges to recruit athletes than to recruit students. When colleges pay their students to play games the alumni like to watch -- and almost all of them except those in the Ivy League do that now -- all the rest, from betting scandals to agents for high-schoolers, will follow. Rather than protest the excesses, the big-time schools should either start reforming the system or concede what everyone knows: most college athletes are professionals and the blue-chippers among them are vastly underpaid.