Are there still young people who work their way through college?

I don't mean the students who take part-time jobs for spending money, or who try to lay aside a few bucks from a summer job. I'm talking about the people who used to earn all, or nearly all, of their college costs: the law and dental school students who waited tables in the downtown restaurants; the undergrads who worked evenings on the loading dock, or nights in the post office, or summers on serious construction jobs. Do these still exist?

I suppose they do, but surely not in the numbers they used to. The reasons, I suspect, are two: the high cost of college, which reduces the tuition-paying value of the sorts of jobs young people can get, and the broader availability of scholarships, grants and guaranteed loans.

But with college costing more than ever, grants getting harder to find, and the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings threats to federal loans, more and more students are finding college -- or at any rate the college of their choice -- out of reach.

One prominent educator proposes a solution: letting students work their way through college after graduation.

What William J. Byron, S.J., president of Catholic University, has in mind is a revolving fund from which students could borrow, with the payments deducted by the Internal Revenue Service from their post-graduation paychecks. The money would thus be available to all who needed it, and the repayment would be far more certain than the haphazard, default-plagued payback of present-day student loans.

Byron's notion, an eclectic pirating of a number of similar schemes, is based on his belief that there is a serious "diminishment of the twin goals of access and choice."

"When I went to college, I went on the GI Bill," he explained in a recent interview. "We had access, and we had choice. Fifty percent of the postwar enrollments were in the independent sector. Today, only 20 percent are. The way I read that is that the access is still there -- in community colleges and state-subsidized schools and so forth -- but not the choice."

College costs, typically borne by parents, have risen so fast, he said, that fewer students are able to afford the schools of their choice. In addition, since few colleges set their tuitions at rates commensurate with their actual costs, faculty salaries lag behind those in the nonacademic professions.

His study-now-pay-later idea would fix that, he believes, while expanding both access and choice.

"The system of federal aid to students should, in my judgment, undergo radical change," he wrote in the May issue of Youth Policy magazine, published at Catholic University. "The 'working your way through' principle, if adopted, would put the ultimate financial responsibility on the one who receives the educational service -- the student."

His scheme -- heavily indebted to a proposal made some 20 years ago by J. Zacharias, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a more recent brainchild of John Silber -- is still being perfected. For instance, he is undecided whether the revolving fund should be available without regard to family income. On the one hand, if the idea is to shift the burden from parent to student, family income should not matter. On the other, if removing high-income families from eligibility would ease the plan's enactment, he'd accept that limitation.

The biggest political obstacle to Byron's attractive idea -- which he has yet to "cost out" -- may be the federal deficit. It shouldn't be.

As Byron puts it, "It would be a serious mistake to dismiss this idea by pointing to the deficit and saying, 'We don't have the resources.' We do have the resources. The point at issue is the place of higher education on our ladder of priorities."

He pointed to a recent Business Week editorial charging that waste and fraud in Pentagon procurement would cost taxpayers $23 billion in a single year.

"It seems to me that $23 billion would be more than enough to put this restructured student aid plan into place. The resources are there. We continue to misapply them because we forget that an educated citizenry is, in fact, our first line of defense."