RITA HAMILTON is a 27-year-old single mother from Nashville, Tenn. Tired of low-paying, dead-end jobs, she decided to get training that could lead to a career and a brighter future for her young son.She responded to a newspaper ad for a school in Nashville that painted a rosy picture of professional training, job placement help, and a big salary. It sounded like the ticket Rita needed to escape her dependence on public assistance. She made an appointment with the school's recruiter for June 4. In an hour, she was signed up for a $2,400 Pell Grant, a $1,200 guaranteed student loan, and a Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant (SEOG) to help with babysitting costs. Within minutes of signing the paperwork, Rita stepped into a computer concepts class that started the previous week. School officials backdated her financial aid applications as if she had been enrolled all along. The recruiter told her not to worry about the missed coursework or the fudged papers. The class met for three hours two mornings a week, covering two or more chapters a day. Tests were easy with the answer to one question often contained in the text of another. Despite the course subject, students had no access to a computer in the classroom. If that wasn't bad enough, Rita never received the SEOG money to offset her babysitter expenses. Realizing she was wasting her time, Rita quit the trade school July 2. She now hopes for a different education, maybe at Middle Tennessee State University. But if her loan problems aren't resolved, she will forever be barred from obtaining federal student assistance. If stuck with loan payments or bad credit from defaults, Rita may be far worse off. Is this case the exception? No. Often, it's the norm. During the last 15 months, I've heard from dozens of students with similar experiences, most of them at for-profit trade schools. A Senate subcommittee headed by Sen. Sam Nunn found the same dismal picture of a well-intentioned federal program gone awry. This year, student-loan defaults will cost taxpayers $3.6 billion - half the money we spend on the program. Even worse, the most irresponsible schools can get their hands on millions in Pell Grants even if they are barred from the loan program because of high defaults. Health Care Training Institute in Memphis had loan default rates above 60 percent for three consecutive years and was banned from the loan program but has gotten almost $80,000 a week in Pell Grant funds this year. Taxpayers should be concerned. The current system's most zealous defenders argue that for-profit trade schools with high default rates, low course completion rates, and lower job placement rates deserve special breaks because they serve more "at-risk" students. They say if even one in five or one in 10 is marginally helped, the system has worked. But what about all those that fail? What about Rita? And what about the millions of students who may find access to student aid limited because of high defaults at bad schools? President Bush proposed cutting 400,000 low- and middle-income students from the Pell Grant program on the heels of a decade in which eligibility was reduced several times. We do need a technically skilled work force. In the 21st century this is a key to US competitiveness. But if something isn't done, future students could be robbed of their dreams just when they most need help. A cleanup of our student-aid programs will help students by insuring that their efforts, and taxpayers' money, is given to good schools where quality training, course completion, and job placement are priorities. The Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization. It is time to raise basic issues of accountability and fairness. We must toughen accreditation standards, put teeth in state licensing, and upgrade federal oversight. By demanding quality, we can provide better opportunities for more students, meet America's training needs, and give taxpayers confidence that they are getting the most for their dollars.