Higher education is one of America's most distressed industries. The cost of colleges and universities has been climbing faster than the general inflation rate and faster than disposable incomes. Fewer students are coming through the high school pipelines, and the purchasing power of the average amount of financial aid available to each student has been going down.

The result: more places for students than they can afford to buy at present prices. The inevitable consequence: Effective college costs will have to come down. Price wars are already breaking out, reflecting the stiff competition for desirable students. There are selective tuition cuts, and stretched-out loans that make monthly payments easier to bear. Here's what to look for:

*Special offers. The pricier private schools are inventing dozens of gimmicks to lure paying students and help those in need. Gordon College (Mass.) gives a 5 percent discount for prepaid tuition. Cornell University (N.Y.) offers $2,000 work scholarships to more than 400 students, so they won't have to carry so many loans. Columbia Christian College (Ore.) offers 10 percent off to any student who captures another student for the school. Coe College (Iowa) discounts tuition by 25 to 50 percent for full-time students age 25 or over, depending on the number of courses taken.

Part-time students can get discounts, too. Alderson-Broaddus College (W. Va.) gives free tuition to in-state students from families whose major wage-earner is unemployed. This is just a sampling; you'll find many other breaks in specific college catalogues.

*Easy-pay loans. If you can't get a tuition grant, maybe the school has a loan program that will make payment easier.

Hartwick College (N.Y.) offers 9 percent loans to the parents of needy freshmen and sophomores, charging interest only while the student is in school. In their last two years, students take 5 percent National Direct Student Loans. If the student stays at the school and graduates, parents are offered a way of reducing their loans.

Fairleigh Dickinson University (N.J.), whose enrollment has dropped by 23 percent since 1980, will effectively pay the 12 percent interest on loans that parents get through the government-guaranteed PLUS program (available through some banks, or through the Student Loan Marketing Association, Assured Access Department, 1055 Thomas Jefferson St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20007).

Lafayette College (Pa.) offers no-payment loans while the student is in school, then eight years to repay. Lehigh University (Pa.) will cancel any loan the student got from the school in any given year, if he or she maintains a 2.6 percent grade average.

*No-need scholarships. Around 75 percent of all colleges and universities, public and private, now offer tuition discounts to bright students who, strictly speaking, have no financial need. By that I mean that their financial aid forms show too high an income to qualify them for the usual scholarship programs. ut from the point of view of the students and parents, they may indeed need money for school, especially if they want to go to a private university. These are the students that the schools are angling for: bright kids whose choice of college can be influenced by a cut in price.

Some merit awards are mere tokens -- maybe $100 or $200. But a growing number of these scholarships run well into four figures, with an average last year of $1,189. Brandeis University will discount tuition by $4,000 for top students with no financial need. A few schools offer free tuition, which can be worth even more. There's especially heavy competition right now among a number of schools in Texas to snare the best and the brightest applicants.

Without bargaining, a student in the top 5 to 25 percent of his or her high school class should find some kind of no-need scholarship, somewhere. If your high grades and other activities make you a particularly desirable applicant, you may be able to play two schools off against each other to get a better offer from the one you prefer. For a list of most of the discounts and how to qualify, send for "The A's and B's of Academic Scholarships" by Robert Leider, $3.50 from Octameron Associates, P.O. Box 3437, Alexandria, Va. 22302.

The Ivy League colleges and a few other top schools don't formally offer no-need scholarships, but they do price-compete in other ways. For example, a desirable student may be offered a free grant, while a marginal student is offered a loan. Bright students and their parents should price-shop as many colleges as possible, because right now, the student is in the driver's seat.