Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) has peered through the revolving door between the Education Department and the trade school industry, and glimpsed what he worries may be a disturbing pattern.

Gordon has identified three trade schools in his state with owners or corporate executives who are former Education Department officials and found that a large percentage of students at each of those proprietary schools -- as many as 65 percent -- defaulted on federally guaranteed student loans.

Gordon has asked the General Accounting Office to determine whether there is a broader pattern of former federal officials trading their knowledge of student-aid programs for profits or bigger salaries from trade schools, at the expense of ill-trained students and burdened taxpayers.

Nationwide, defaults have run higher at proprietary trade schools -- whose average default rate of 33 percent has been a concern for department officials, congressional committees and educators -- than at four-year colleges. The trade school problem has contributed to the cost of student loan defaults, which appears to be growing despite tougher laws and regulations. The Bush administration's mid-session review of the budget recently increased estimates of defaults from $2.05 billion to $2.43 billion this year and from $2.07 billion to $2.66 billion in fiscal year 1991.

"Taxpayers deserve to know that former Department of Education employees, people who were supposed to prevent this kind of problem a few years ago, are now running operations with exceptionally high default rates," Gordon said. "Some of these programs look to be failing miserably in delivering on their promise of first-rate training and waiting jobs. The people who run the schools know better."

Representatives of the Tennessee trade schools, as well as an Education Department spokesman, argued that Gordon is mistaken. They said the former federal officials were hired to bring down default rates that were already high. They cited modest progress toward that goal and conceded defaults remain high, but usually blamed the low socio-economic status of many trade school students.

"Let's get the chicken and the egg right," said Rodger Murphey, the department spokesman. "A lot of them hired people {former federal officials} because they had high default rates and wanted to try to cure the problem. And they're still high."

Richard Hastings said that is why CareerCom Corp., which owns 71 trade schools, has employed him since 1988 as executive vice president with responsibility for student-aid programs.

"I used to be in charge of debt collection at the department, and we're trying everything that I know of," Hastings said. "These are very complicated programs, and you just can't hire John off the street to run them."

CareerCom operates a business school in Knoxville, Tenn., as a branch of a Kentucky school that had a default rate of 17 percent in 1988, the most recent data available. Hastings said he was not ashamed of what is a relatively low default rate for a proprietary trade school, adding that the average rate at CareerCom schools has dipped from 34 percent in 1987 to 28 percent in 1988.

Gordon aimed his harshest comments at the Health Care Training Institute in Memphis, which trains nursing assistants. Its latest default rate of 65.6 percent translated into a federal loss of $5.1 million. A co-owner, Jim G. Bockman, worked for the former Department of Health, Education and Welfare in the 1970s. The school also gets some legal advice from Ken Palmer, who supervised student-aid specialists in the Education Department until 1984.

In his letter to Comptroller General Charles A. Bowsher reqesting a GAO study, Gordon wrote said that "a 65 percent loan default rate at an institution owned by a former Education Department official is an insult to every American taxpayer and a broken promise for hundreds of young Americans who end up out of a program, out of work and with bad credit because they got talked into taking a big loan."

Bockman could not be reached for comment, but his partner, Michael Lynn, said he recruited Bockman in the early 1980s partly because of his knowledge of student-aid programs. Lynn said the school complied with new federal regulations and implemented a default management plan in November. Another school official said the default rate had declined from 73 percent in 1987.

The other school that Gordon has identified is Draughons Junior College in Memphis, where 48 percent of the students defaulted. The financial aid coordinator for Draughons' 10 business schools around the South, William Noll, reviewed campus aid programs from the Atlanta regional office until September 1986. Because he was not a senior executive, federal ethics rules did not require Noll to wait a year before joining Draughons in early 1987.

"We are following all the federal regulations and trying to reduce our default rate," Noll said. "I don't have a conflict of interest. I was hired because of my expertise."

Gordon, who said he has an interest in education but does not serve on the House Education and Labor Committee, acknowledged that his correlations cannot be equated with wrongdoing, or even abuse.

"I don't think we've done enough {research} to make hard accusations, and we're not trying to," Gordon said. "But we think we've found a problem."