The Justice Department begins a broad new crackdown on student loan defaults today with the filing of 501 lawsuits in three Ohio cities to recover more than $660,000 in unpaid federal loans.

The suits are being filed in U.S. District Courts in Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati by U.S. Attorney James C. Cissell, who says he is "alarmed" at the number of defaulted student loans in the country and especially in the southern district of Ohio.

He said the amount in default in the national direct student loan program administered by colleges in the southern district of Ohio was $23.6 million, 76 percent more than the $13.4 million taken in all the bank robberies in the country in 1978.

"The average loan in default in this district for this one program was $947, which exceeded by $421 the average amount taken by burglars," Cissell said. "Nationally, the amount in default for this single student loan program was $732 million, an amount more than four times greater than all robberies in the nation in 1978."

Today's suit to recover $663,868.46 in defaulted student loans marks the second time in the last two years that Cissell has cracked down on student loan defaulters. The suit today brings to court more than three times the number of defaulters involved in the first suit, and spotlights a trend in the Justice Department, which is sending out the message that holders of federal student loans can now expect to be sued if they default.

U.S. attorneys in Detroit, Cleveland and Milwaukee are cracking down on student loan defaults with the same aggressiveness that Cissell's Cincinnati office is. The U.S. attorney in Cleveland is giving the names of student loan defaulters to local newspapers. The U.S. attorney in Detroit used a new computerized system and a staff of seven paralegal technicians to track down loan defaulters and collect $1.2 million last year alone.

Nationwide, the Justice Department network of 95 U.S. attorneys offices collected more than $23 million last year in student loan defaults. Broken down, the collections represented $12,752,885 in loans granted by the Veterans Administration and $10,757,593 in loans made by the Department of Education.

To hear Cissell tell it, recipients who defaulted on their federal student loans were just about immune from prosecution until 1978. He says that U.S. attorneys didn't have the manpower or the machinery to cope with the rising number of defaulters, and that the colleges that administered student loan programs were less than enthusiastic about pursuing defaulters.

"One college administrator told me he didn't have the heart to go after loan defaults. He said it was like a father suing his son," Cissell said.

The trouble with that attitude, he said, is that it presumes that people who default on their student loans are destitute. Nothing could be farther from the truth, he said, adding that most defaulters are employed people who don't believe that the federal government is serious about getting its money back.

"A brief review of their employment information reveals they are employed by sheriffs departments, police departments, fire departments and probation departments," Cissell said. "We've tracked down loan defaulters to newspapers and broadcast companies, telephone companies, construction companies and utility companies. These individuals are not destitute."

The crackdown on student loan defaults is just beginning. New computers to track defaulters and larger staffs to carry out default actions are moving into U.S. attorneys offices across the country.

Along with the manpower and machinery has come a tougher attitude. Says chief assistant U.S. Attorney Jay Brent in Detroit: "In the past, we haven't put liens on property or garnished any wages to get back the government's money. We're just beginning to do that."