The Reagan administration is correct in arguing that the United States must increase the proportion of financial assets going into endeavors that lead to new production and wealth, such as capital development, research and investment, and new technology. It is precisely because such ''reinvestment'' is necessary that it is difficult to fathom the rationale for the proposed new budget cuts in federal loans and grant programs for college students.
For in the long run the most important investment the US can make is the education and schooling of its young people. The ultimate ''payoff'' - in terms not only of greater national prosperity but public enlightenment - is incalculable.
The proposed fiscal year 1983 budget cuts come on top of reductions already made in the 1982 budget, as well as a persistent recession that has forced many young people to rethink their future college plans. This week the Congressional Budget Office said the cutbacks already enacted or sought by President Reagan would cut federal aid to college students almost in half by 1984 - from $14.7 billion in fiscal 1981 to $7.7 billion. This would go far beyond simply cutting growth in federal spending.
For example, the administration would limit Pell Grants, the basic grant program for disadvantaged students, to $1,600 for families earning less than $18 ,000 a year. Up until now somewhat larger grants have been available to families earning up to $27,000. Another program targeted at needy students, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, would be scrapped.
The administration would also eliminate entirely professional and graduate student participation in the Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL) program geared essentially to middle-class families; tighten eligibility requirements and double the fees paid at the time student loans are made; boost interest rates; and require that loans be made only upon a demonstration of true financial need.
In defense of its proposed cuts, the administration argues that if reforms are not made federal costs in the GSL program will rise from $1.6 billion in 1980 to $3.4 billion by the next decade. And that, since most of these loans go to middle-class families who have access to private bank financing, the government is justified in seeking significant reductions.
Unfortunately, there have been abuses in the student loan programs. Moreover, federal loan and grant programs have grown enormously since the government began providing direct college aid to students back in 1958. Last year alone some 3.5 million students received student loans, while 2.6 million disadvantaged students received direct grants.
Tightening eligibility, however, is quite different from ending loan availability altogether for thousands of students who might not be able to attend college without it. For that reason, many lawmakers are echoing the position of New Jersey Republican Congresswoman Marge Roukema, who said recently that ''we've gone about as far as we can go'' in slashing the student loan program.
Indeed, Congress should consider any further student loan or direct grant cutbacks only with the utmost care. The nation's graduate schools, for instance, are now experiencing declines in enrollments in such fields as the physical sciences and engineering. Yet how is the US to maintain its industrial prowess without a growing body of educated engineers and scientists?
In the meantime, colleges and the US industrial-business community would seem to have a responsibility to develop ways of aiding college-bound youth besides just directing them to federal aid offices. That means increasing scholarship endowment programs; underwriting bank loans; and establishing jobs programs for students.
Admittedly, establishing such programs will be difficult for financially pinched colleges and business communities. But it is crucial to the nation's future that every qualified young person who aspires to a college education receive that education.
Stretching financial resources today will assure sufficient human resources tomorrow.