CONGRESS LAST FALL amended the Military Selective Service Act to make draft registration a condition of eligibility for federal higher education student assistance. Those programs help roughly 5 million students annually, slightly more than half of whom are men, at a cost this year of $10.7 billion. Is the law fair that links compliance with the registration requirement to student aid? And what about a college that substitutes school loans for government loans? Isn't it essentially subsidizing the violation of a law?

Linking eligibility for government programs to registration isn't crucial to enforcement. Registration has been a general success. There are 9.6 million men registered, which is 96 percent of all those covered by the law, and 98 percent of those in the age group that would be drafted first if there were a national emergency tomorrow.

The justification for the link rests simply on principle. Congress has decided that, whether or not a military draft is ever needed, a prudent national security policy requires prior registration of that group of citizens most likely to be called upon in the event of national emergency. To back up this requirement the law makes evasion of its provisions a felony--punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

People may not agree with the necessity for the law and may work to change it. But it is on the books, and the government reasonably is seeking to enforce it. It is hardly surprising that Congress, having decided that registration is an important enough civic responsibility to warrant criminal penalties, should seek to limit federal subsidies to those who evade the law. Civil disobedience has an honorable tradition, but there is an obvious inconsistency in asking the government to help subsidize its practice.

Higher education subsidies are an obvious target. They are a major benefit for the age group in question, and they are more broadly distributed across middle-income groups than most forms of public aid. Higher education is still a scarce commodity. Why offer aid to a youth who is not willing to accept the minimum requirements of citizenship?

It is true that wealthy students who have no need of government aid will not be affected by these restrictions. And it is also true that--apart from job training assistance--no such limitation has been placed on other government programs that may be of interest to men in this age group: food stamps, unemployment insurance and so forth. But saying that Congress could theoretically do more if it wanted to is not the same thing as saying that what it has done is wrong.

There is something unappealing about the action of several colleges that have offered substitute aid. Schools can choose whether and how to coddle their charges, and some schools have much more money than others with which to do so. But how can a school justify to itself shifting resources from students who have complied with the law to those who have not?