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For the past week, admissions officials at private colleges and universities across the country have been tallying the results of their annual effort to recruit and select next fall's freshman classes. The last stage of the long process--the acceptance by the prospective freshmen of an admission offer--ended late last month when the accepted students were to have sent back their replies.

The time is traditionally an exciting one for applicants and colleges both, but a particular anxiety hangs over the admissions process this year because of mounting indications that students are shifting from the more expensive private institutions to public ones. Several recent surveys suggest that the long-awaited decline in the number of college-age Americans, the national recession, and a widespread perception that federal financial-aid programs are shrinking have combined to depress application rates at private colleges, while swelling those for public institutions.

Freshman classes at private colleges last year were 2 percent smaller than the year before, according to the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. And surveys conducted this year by The Chronicle of Higher Education have found that private-college application rates are down more than 2 percent, an indication that the final freshman enrollment figure is likely to drop still further.

Meanwhile, the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges reports that demand for junior-college courses is exceeding the financial capacity of the colleges to offer them, and some institutions have had to impose enrollment limits.

Bard College, a selective liberal-arts college in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y., has come up with one admissions strategy to add an element of certainty to the process for both the school and its applicants. This year, it interviewed, evaluated, and told some students who applied for admission whether they were accepted--all in one day.

The college's Immediate Decision Plan combines a thorough look at prospective students' grades, references, aptitude-test scores, and writing samples, as well as their ability to express themselves both in an interview and in class.

"It's needlessly cruel to keep a student waiting months for a reply to his or her application to college," says Bard president Leon Botstein.

Fewer jobs are being offered to graduating college seniors this year than in the past, but for students in fields where the demand for skilled workers is high, the available jobs bring handsome salaries, says the College Placement Council.

Average starting salaries for entry-level positions in business, engineering, and computer science are up by 5-to-14 percent, according to the council's annual survey of jobs for new college graduates. The highest starting salary: $30,432, in petroleum engineering.

The greatest number of entry-level jobs can be found in computer science, where the average starting salary is $22,572.

The Reserve Officers Training Corps (rotc), the target of large campus protests in the late 1960's and early 1970's, is now returning to growing numbers of colleges.

In 1970-71, the total enrollment in all armed-service rotc programs was 109,596 students. By 1973-74, when compulsory training programs at land-grant colleges were made voluntary, total enrollment fell to 61,279, according to Alvin Tucker, director of the training and education division of the reserve office at the Pentagon.

rotc now enrolls 105,725 cadets who obligate themselves for three to seven years of military service. The program covers each participant's costs for tuition and textbooks, and provides an additional $100 per month and, recruiters note, the guarantee of a job after college.

The genius of American postsecondary education, its exponents usually say, is its flexibility and inventiveness in adapting to serve the needs of the largest and most varied student population in the world. Spring Garden College, a four-year technical institution outside of Philadelphia, has found a way to carry out its mission by offering a service to the urban unemployed.

The college, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Automotive Association, a car-dealers' group, and the Private Industry Council of Philadelphia, takes in unemployed adults and turns out auto mechanics. Classes are conducted in a former auto dealership the college acquired. Graduates are guaranteed jobs, according to a spokesman for the school.

Peter K. Warren, the chairman of the board of PepsiCo International and of the national organization of college trustees, was among the major corporate leaders who argued before Congress last month that cutting student aid would:

Increase the overall tax burden for support of higher education.

Move less-affluent students from independent campuses to public institutions and push out the minority populations from public colleges and universities. This, he said, would destroy the voluntary racial integration of campuses across the country.

Weaken the manpower pool for national defense. "We need a reservoir of highly educated and trained young men and women who will provide a long-term capability that would realistically have to be respected by our potential adversaries," Mr. Warren said.

Threaten American business, which needs educated and technologically sophisticated personnel to compete in the international marketplace.

Many colleges and universities are making "computer literacy" a requirement for graduation, and they are developing strategies to ensure that all students and professors have access to computers.

Rochester Institute of Technology has adopted a set of goals for computer literacy for students and faculty, including a requirement that any student receiving a degree, regardless of the field of study, must demonstrate "fundamental computer literacy." To help implement the policy, the school plans to invest $42 million in new computing equipment.

Carnegie-Mellon University is considering a proposal to require each student to have a personal computer within the next three or four years. Computer literacy will be a graduation requirement at Hamline University for students entering in the fall of 1983.

Wells College, after offering a two-week-long course to faculty members with no previous computer experience, found instructors in French and philosophy writing their own programs for use by students in their classes.

Dartmouth College, where 93 percent of the students have already used computers without being required to do so, plans to start selling and renting computers to students this fall.

According to a survey conducted by Raymond K. Neff, director of computing at Dartmouth, 83 percent of Dartmouth's students have written a computer program, 53 percent of its first-year students had used a computer before coming to Dartmouth, and 86 percent of the first-year students used a computer during the year.

The National Center for Education Statistics has published a 12-page pamphlet containing information on costs at nearly 2,000 U.S. public and private 4-year colleges and universities.

The costs covered are for the 1981-82 school year and include room and board, tuition, and required fees for undergraduates and graduate students.

Copies of College Costs, 1981-82 may be purchased for $2 from the Consumer Information Center, Department 204K, Pueblo, Colo. 81009.

Students who obtain their high-school diploma by passing the Tests of General Educational Development (ged) perform as well as regular high-school graduates in postsecondary vocational-education programs, according to a study conducted by the American Council on Education.

The study, which surveyed more than 100 students from both educational backgrounds, indicates that:

ged students earned a higher grade-point average (2.80) at community colleges than did students with high-school diplomas (2.56).

About 63 percent of ged students completed the vocational-education programs, compared to 59.7 percent of the high-school graduates.

About 58 percent of the ged students found employment related to their programs, compared to 57.2 percent of students with diplomas.

Sheppard Ranbom and Martha Matzke

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