A growing number of colleges are offering financial aid to any top-flight student who applies, even the rich. It's the academic equivalent of football scholarships--a recruiting tool designed to attract the most able applicants. Awards typically range from $1,000 to $2,500, payable without regard to family income. A few scholarships pay over $4,000 and some cover all costs.

Where does the money come from? Sometimes from outside donors, who can be tapped to fund a special merit program. But more often it comes from the general pool of scholarship funds. For this reason, many college administrators worry about the trend. Putting money in the pockets of some wealthier students will inevitably deprive some needy student who might not be able to get enough financial help.

The bright, middle-income or lower-income student will still receive his full complement of aid. But the middle- to lower-income student may have a harder time of it. Bright, well-to-do students will be getting more money. Needy but lower-achieving students will be getting slightly less.

Traditionally, college aid has been awarded strictly on the basis of need. A wealthy A student should get nothing, because he can pay his own way. A low-income B student might have most of his education paid for. The guiding principle has been equal access to education for everyone capable enough to be accepted by a college.

This principle still rules the vast majority of college-aid decisions. But in the early 1970s, the scholarship landscape began to change. A handful of schools--most of them high-cost, middle-rung, private schools--started paying bonuses to attract bright students.

The bonuses gradually grew into substantial awards. In 1976, about 500 colleges provided 30,000 academic awards worth $25 million. This year, about 1,000 schools have 90,000 awards worth $125 million. (For the most recent list, get "The A's & B's of Academic Scholarships," $2.50, from Octameron Press, P.O. Box 3437, Alexandria, Va. 22302.)

Behind this trend lies desperation. There are fewer high-school students in the pipeline, and more of them are applying to lower-priced, state-supported universities. All colleges need a certain number of highly motivated, talented students to interest the teachers and keep up the tone of the student body. So they're bidding for them the same way Detroit bids for people to buy new cars: by offering discounts.

At Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., any student in the top 10 percent of his or her high-school class gets a Trustee Scholarship, which cuts tuition by one-third. "Places like Harvard, Yale and Stanford get the cream of the crop, so they don't have to worry about the quality of their student body," says Adelphi president Timothy Costello. "Adelphi is a fine institution but it's not Harvard. If we want to attract good students, we need to let them know that we'll help them come here."

"People would go out and rob a liquor store to get the money to send their kids to Harvard," says the president of a small college in Connecticut. "But no one would commit a felonious act to send their kids to my school. I've got to be competitive some other way, so I offer merit awards."

Academic scholarships are given by both public and private institutions. A few are merely come-ons, offered only for the freshman year. But most merit awards are now renewable for four years.

Many colleges deplore the trend. They don't want to plunder their limited funds to help a student who doesn't really need it. And some doubt that it does any good. "Schools that think they can improve themselves by buying scholars are not in touch with reality," says James Stephens, director of financial aid for Marietta College in Ohio. "Students who are bright and come from well-to-do homes are not going to go to an inferior program."

Some of the schools with academic awards are indeed of lower quality. Students should be sure that the school that offers them money has an honors program to challenge bright kids once they get there.

Fortunately, many fine schools now offer merit awards and report great success with them. As time passes, these grants will become even more widespread.