Stephen J. Blair believes that any move by Congress to restrict the participation of at-risk students in the federal student loan program would be penny-wise and pound foolish.

The so-called at-risk students, those who come from low-income backgrounds and are often minorities, are more likely to default on their student loans, a debt that the taxpayers end up paying. Blair readily concedes that fact.But, the president of the National Association of Trade and Technical Schools points out, when just one of these at-risk students succeeds, the taxes paid by that one student covers the costs of about 65 defaults.

And, he says, a short-sighted focus on dollars and defaults ignores the social costs that society must bear when a significant number of its members are stuck in dead-end jobs or on the welfare rolls.

Blair, who represents 1,300 private career schools and colleges in the United States and Puerto Rico, was in Salt Lake City Monday and Tuesday, lobbying for support from the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups. Tuesday afternoon, he was on his way to Wichita, Kan., to speak to more businesspeople.

He was asking them to send Congress, through letters and calls, the message that all students should have equal access to a postsecondary school of their choice.

His plea is urgent because next month Congress will begin the process that reauthorizes the Higher Education Act, a law that covers 60 federal programs and involves $60 billion, mostly in student aid.

The high default rates among at-risk students, the collapse of the Higher Education Assistance Foundation and failure of a number of fly-by-night colleges across the country that left students unable to repay their student loans has turned public attention from where it should be, Blair says.

It needs to be focused on determining what sort of higher education system the country needs to compete in a global economy in the next century, Blair says. To compete internationally, he continues, America needs trained craftspeople, artisans and technicians in addition to the professionals produced by four-year colleges and universities.

"One half of all this country's skilled artisans, craftsmen and technicians come from private trade and technical schools," Blair reports.

He points out that these are the students who become the human capital of the nation's businesses from hospitals and restaurants to construction and auto mechanics.

And, he continues, 84 percent of these students pay for their education by federal financial assistance. The bulk of the money came in the form of loans as federal grants and other direct aid steadily declined over the past decade.

Blair says these student loans are the key to equal access and allow students to choose the school that fits them best.

But some higher-education leaders are urging Congress to set up separate but equal aid programs - traditional colleges vs. trade and technical schools. Blair says the result would be separate-but-unequal aid programs, hurting most those who can benefit the most.

"Separate aid programs for private career students will lead to educational apartheid," creating the educational "haves and the have-nots, he says.

It sends the message that "if you choose to be a technician, you are less valuable than if you elect to study 15th century Chinese literature," he says.