I hear they are making this budget the American way, rather like a patchwork quilt. One week, the Congress cuts things out, and, the next week, it pieces them back together again.

This is, at least, what's happening to the student-loan program. Following the Stockman Pattern, the House Committee on Education and Labor excised guaranteed loans for college students who came from families with incomes of $25,000 or more. The next week, they began sewing the program into place.

Nobody knows yet whether the loans will be fixed permanently into the finished product, but we do know that this particular quilting bee is working under a great deal of heat.

Some of it comes from the families and colleges that are directly affected. In only three years, since guaranteed yearly loans of $2,500 were open to all students, much of the middle class has come to depend on their existence.

But it also emanates from the widespread anxiety on the part of the entire middle class about their children's future. The threat to the guaranteed student-loan program is an attack on the ability of the middle class to give their children the one legacy promised them: an education.

"College," the idea and the reality, has acquired a curious role in this democracy. Most of us are only two or three generations away from immigrants. Out grandparents or great-grandparents pinned their hopes on their children's education. For them, school was central to the myth of making it in America.

Today we are somewhat more skeptical about the value of college for upward mobility. About 50 percent of 18-year-olds are enrolled in higher education and they cannot all rise above average. But we still regard college as the best hedge against downward mobility. It is, at least, the only hedge we have.

Only a rare child now inherits economic security, know-how, tools, from a parent. Most middle-class parents are bureaucrats and managers, technocrats and professionals. Our kids will not inherit a piece of land or a set of tools, a business or a skill by which they can make a living. All that we can do is help them get the price of admission, the college degree.

But when a private college education for one costs as much as $40,000, it is out of reach of all but the elite.

ythe student who could once work his or her way through college now finds jobs scarce and the gap between paychecks and tuition bill a chasm. The student from a family that earns $30,000 a year can barely more afford college than the student from the family that earns $20,000 a year.

Because of this reality, the student-loan program was extended to help all families. Under it, the government has paid interest on these loans while students are in school. Six months after graduation the students take over their own debts.

Those who oppose this program like to describe it as a handout to the rich. It has, in fact, been abused by some truly unneedy who have borrowed publicly from the government at low rates while investing privately at high rates.

Furthermore, the opponents complain that it is frivolous in an era of hard choices and painful cutbacks. The same congressional panel, for example, that temporarily restored $250 million to the loan program cut $150 million for child nutrition, $205 million for Head Start, and $130.5 million for education of the handicapped.

There is undoubtedly a need to improve the guidelines, to have some income ceiling and make changes in the repayment program.

But I don't think we have to accept the either/ors of this administration. I don't agree that we can either afford college loans for the middle class or school lunches for the poor. Not while we go on a defense-spending spree.

This is not a giveaway program, but a loan to families, and an investment. In anera when both the economy and the technology are changing, we need the educated people we can get so cheaply. We also need to make sure middle-class families aren't cut out off from the future. They too need a place in this vast and intricate patchwork.