IT'S DISTURBING that so many colleges and graduate schools don't vigorously chase the government-backed loans they administer to students on campus. Those delinquencies subvert the intent of the loans and ultimately drain the pool from which other students' loans come. The administration is right to decide to do something about it. Its initiatives, however, could undermine loan programs unless they are pursued with great care.

The Department of Health and Human Services is now concentrating on Health Professions Student Loans, which go to medical, dental and other graduate students at the rate of $246 million a year. Delinquency rates at some medical schools range above 50 percent. It seems that the schools have not heretofore had strong incentive to try to collect unpaid government loans. There has been a certain feeling that delinquent students should not be pursued with the same vigor as, say, delinquent business debtors. To change this picture, HHS now threatens to disqualify institutions with delinquency rates above 5 percent.

There is something to this idea. Better management and a little advice from professionals could surely push those delinquency rates down. Many schools, according to the government, do a poor job at simply keeping track of their graduates. They might consider using private collection agencies or developing a joint collection venture of some sort.

Greater diligence on the part of the institutions, however, should be accompanied by some understanding of the special circumstances of student borrowers. Many recipients of health-professions loans start out needy but graduate with good earnings potential -- doctors, for instance; they should be expected to pay back their loans. A somewhat different standard must be set for loan programs designed for undergraduates, whose earnings prospects are likely to be quite varied. For the government to demand full repayment of all such loans and to penalize colleges for any level of delinquency could make the schools turn unduly cautious in their loan policies. The result would be to deprive otherwise worthy students a chance for schooling.

Aggressiveness in loan collection isn't too much to ask of schools, so long as the government is discriminating about it.