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Almost since its outset, the federal student loan program has been synonymous with fraud, waste, and bureaucratic ineptitude. And now that shabby undertaking has hit a new low.

This week the agency's inspector general reported that since 1960 the U.S. Department of Education has guaranteed nearly $500 million in college loans to students who already have skipped out on the government-guaranteed loans.Though the inspector general was too kind to say so, this sad development occurred because recipients of the loans have learned how easy it is to get away with being a deadbeat.

Besides demonstrating moral laxity on the part of many students, this situation discloses incredible foot-dragging on the part of the Education Department. The department still has not developed a data bank to alert lenders to previous loan defaulters even though Congress told it to do so as long ago as 1986.

As a result of such needless waste, the taxpayers are losing enough money to have paid for not just one but several deluxe versions of the data bank needed to keep deadbeats from getting new loans.

By now, the taxpayers should be accustomed to such ineptitude. The student loan program keeps incurring more and more unpaid debts. Repeatedly, Washington promises reforms. Repeatedly, the mess gets worse instead of better. Since fiscal 1981, the costs of all the defaults - including one-time as well as repeat offenders - have risen from $252 million to $3.6 billion.

It's hard to quarrel with the purpose of the student loan program, which is to make higher education available to as many young Americans as possible. More education eventually means more progress for society as a whole as well as the individuals who continue their schooling.

But the nation also suffers individually and collectively when, by failing to get tough with deadbeats, the Department of Education in effect teaches young Americans that honesty doesn't matter.

Are steep cuts in the loan program the only way to get the Education Department's attention? If that's the case, so be it.