Americans have received a parting assessment from Education Secretary T.H. Bell of the importance of education, and federal aid to it. ''I think education is so special,'' he said in announcing his retirement, ''that it ranks in priority alongside and possibly ahead of the Department of Defense.'' Bell, a staunch supporter of educational reform, said it would be ''a mistake'' to decrease dramatically federal support of education, as sought by much of the New Right.
So it would. Federal money is particularly important in higher education. Some 60 percent of college students receive financial support that directly or indirectly comes from the federal government. Colleges today face a significant financial problem: With high expenses, including long-deferred maintenance requirements, now coming due, they are in no position to cope with a drop in federal aid. For some students, cost rather than educational quality has become a prime consideration in their choice of college - or whether they enroll in any.
The current level of federal aid to education should be maintained at least for the next year, not cut back.