A small but unknown number of students are refusing to register for the draft, or refusing to sign a form indicating why they are statutorily exempt--"I'm a woman," for example. Whether their motivations are philosophical or political, this refusal to comply is a felony, and a 1982 amendment to the Military Selective Service Act makes draft registration a condition of eligibility for federal higher education student assistance.

Some colleges and universities protest being forced to police the registration law with their financial aid forms and object to linking eligibility for student assistance to compliance with the law. But the law is on the books, and schools no less than individuals have a certain responsibility to exercise. On the merits, higher education assistance is a reasonable focus of attention because of the age, family income and relative privilege of the recipients. If the protesters want to make a point in classic civil disobedience style, should the schools underwrite the effort by replacing lost federal aid with private money? Or does such assistance encourage breaking the law?

Harvard, though firmly subscribing to what we consider mistaken objections to the congressional scheme, has taken a sensible approach to the matter of subsidizing the student protesters. Many schools have a policy that anyone they admit will be offered an affordable financial package, and since Harvard would not reject an applicant for failure to comply with the registration statute, it wants to devise an affordable financial package, recognizing the unavailability of federal aid. But because the university's own aid funds are scarce, Harvard will replace lost federal assistance with market-rate loans rather than subsidized loans, subsidized campus jobs or outright grants. Those more desirable and more costly forms of assistance will be available only in the normal fashion.

The approach strikes a balance between coddling and penalizing. It preserves a measure of academic autonomy in that Harvard will still have the student body it wants. Most important, it avoids shifting financial aid resources away from students who have complied with the law to students who have not. Unfortunately, schools with Harvard's sentiments but without its resources may have trouble providing market-rate loans. They will need another solution.