What an appallingly familiar story. Once again the national student loan program is incurring too many unpaid debts. And once again federal officials are promising to clean up the mess.

With more than $9 billion (17 percent) of the $55 billion in outstanding loans currently in default, it is high time that effective corrective action be put into place.Let's hope the change in direction now being promised comes in time. Last year one of the nation's largest student loan guarantee agencies, the Higher Education Assistance Foundation, failed at a cost to American taxpayers of at least $30 million. And let's hope that this latest round of reforms works better than previous ones.

Few would disagree with the intent of the program, to make higher education financially affordable for as many Americans as possible. After all, a well educated and literate citizenry is clearly the key to a strong and vibrant country.

Also sound is the theory behind the program - establishing a revolving loan fund that is self-perpetuating through the repayment of the low-interest loans.

Why, then, has the program been in perpetual financial trouble? Since 1981, the default rate has grown from an annual rate of $151 million to the current $2.7 billion. That kind of trend is a sorry reflection on just about everyone involved, from the federal bureaucracy to many of the schools and students.

A joint study by the Office of Management and Budget and the Education Department blames the inclusion of "shoddy schools" among the eligible participants.

These so-called shoddy schools consist mostly of for-profit trade schools that recruit risky students with the promise of easily available federal student loans. These schools routinely average 27 percent default rates.

In comparison, two-year community colleges have an average default rate of 17 percent compared to just 6 percent at four-year colleges and universities.

The study also concluded that record keeping has been poorly maintained.

Already, 40 of these "shoddy schools" have been evicted from the program. Another 900 could disappear by July 1. And, new guidelines require any school maintaining a 35 percent default rate for three consecutive years to be dropped in the future.

This is a promising start. A sensible second step is the Department of Education's decision to name Michael J. Farrell, a New Hampshire businessman, to oversee the program. Farrell, who is expected to bring a new air of accountability and professional management to the program, will report directly to Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.

And, there are plans to add 150 auditors and monitors to the program over the next two years.

If these reforms don't reverse the trend to ever higher defaults, Congress should seriously consider sharply cutting the student loan program. As it is now, the program is teaching too many students and schools the wrong kind of lesson - a lesson in how to get away with being a deadbeat.