The single most important education program of the 20th century was the GI Bill. It underwrote the cost of education for hundreds of thousands of returning service men and women, easing their transition into civilian life and ushering in the greatest period of economic productivity in our history. It is no accident that a period of abundance followed the GI Bill. It was perhaps the largest single example of human capital investment in the history of man.

The terms of the GI Bill were straightforward: education benefits for time in service to the nation.

We are now confronted with a pressing need to revitalize America. The common thread is human capital, the educated men and women who will make the wheels of post-industrial democracy turn. We face a real crisis in math, science, computer science and foreign language education. On the one hand, we are consuming our seed corn, stripping our high schools, colleges and universities of trained mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. On the other, we are a monolingual nation dealing with a multilingual world. As Rep. Paul Simon, author of "The Tongue-Tied American," points out, there are 10,000 Japanese businessmen in New York--all English speakers--and 1,000 American businessmen in Tokyo--all with translators. He observes wryly that you can buy in any language--but not sell.

The crisis is upon us, and it is being compounded by the administration's decision to further reduce higher education spending, without proposing a workable alternative. This is precisely the time when increases in human capital investment are most needed. It takes 20 years to train the next generation of engineers, scientists and linguists.

When Draconian cuts in student aid occur, The students hardest hit are middle class, the nation's most valuable manpower pool. The institutions hardest hit are the nation's private colleges and universities, an intellectual resource without parallel in the Free World.

Reductions in federal funding, then, will have the bizarre effect of weakening the nation's private higher education institutions, and limiting middle-class student access to higher education.

In post-industrial society, we must recognize that higher education is not conspicuous consumption; it is an investment. It is money in our national human capital bank even more lasting than money spent on physical capital formation.

There is a solution that this administration, the Congress, the public and the schools should examine, one that harnesses private initiative, market forces, and government in a powerful troika. And that is a GI Bill in reverse, first proposed by John Silber, the controversial president of Boston University. Instead of money for past service, funds would be made available prospectively.

The idea has two dimensions. First, long- term government funding would be made available to students for whatever school and program of study they choose, including graduate school.

Repayment would be achieved by one of two devices, or some mix of the two. In areas of national need--rural health care, or inner- city teaching, for instance--doctors, nurses, and teachers could "work off" all or part of their obligation by service in designated areas.

For students who pursue careers in non- national-need areas, an income tax surcharge of several percentage points when the student enters the work place would recover costs. The surcharge would remain in effect until the student's obligation was discharged; or, in the interest of even greater human capital investment, students could be expected to repay an amount greater than the original advance.

For the past year, discussion about the federal education role has been so sterile as to invite cynicism. It has been limited to cut, squeeze and trim and an empty debate about the future of the Department of Education. Indeed, does anyone really care whether or not there is a Department of Education? Form should follow function, in government as in architecture, and we should be debating purpose, not process.

A proposal to create a national trust fund for higher education, together with a program of voluntary national service, is an idea worthy of national debate and one that could enlist widespread support.

Start-up costs would be significant--as much as $15 billion in the first five years-- but the fund would become self-sustaining and would be simple to administer. In terms of national needs, it would be a bargain. Moreover, it recognizes the appropriate balance between private initiative and public responsibility; it relies on market mechanisms to place students and hold schools accountable, and promises to significantly stimulate human capital investment where and when it is most needed.

The question before us is simple: must we wait for a cataclysmic event like Sputnik before we address national education needs, or do we have the wit to plan for the future?