SANTA CLARA, CALIF. -- Carolyn Hamilton, a 20-year-old junior at Santa Clara University, fully expected to pursue a bachelor's degree in computer science that counselors promised would launch her on a lucrative career.

But after only a handful of classes, Hamilton cooled to the idea. "The programming courses were so tedious. It seems so funneled," said Hamilton, now a math major with a minor in art.

On college campuses from Boston to Silicon Valley, students are realizing that the climb up the corporate ladder may be made easier by the ability to use computers, but not necessarily by understanding them. Once the hottest degree going, computer science has lost appeal in what some see as a sign of the computer's transformation from technological marvel to mere business tool.

New figures obtained from the Department of Education show that the number of undergraduate degrees awarded in computers and information sciences dropped for the third consecutive year in 1989 -- down 27 percent from the 1986 peak of 41,889. Last year, nearly 4,000 fewer students majored in computers while such fields as business and social sciences increased in popularity..

Experts, many of whom worry that the field is failing to attract top talent, attribute the decline largely to the end of a whirlwind romance between kids and personal computers.

There's a "lost love affair with PCs," said Daniel Lewis, associate chairman for computer engineering at Santa Clara University, where the number of bachelor's degrees awarded this year in two computer science programs was half what it was five years ago.

The start of the fling can be traced to the introduction of the International Business Machines Corp. personal computer, the watershed event that ushered personal computers into everyday life. The IBM PC made its debut in 1981. In 1982, Time selected the computer as its "Machine of the Year."

Soon colleges everywhere bulged with computer majors. Some were forced to turn away straight-A students, others converted trailers into classrooms, all complained of faculty shortages. In 1982, according to the University of California at Los Angeles, 8.8 percent of all college freshmen expressed an interest in a computing career -- an all-time high.

Then reality hit.

Quickly, many students realized the hard truth: A computer major can be far more time-consuming and tedious than they expected.

"In a nutshell, the program was a very tough curriculum for me because we had a significant number of calculus and physics" courses, said Brad Toms, a May 1990, graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, who switched to communications.

Other students lost interest in computing when manufacturers made the PC so "user friendly" that it seemed to be little more than another tool or appliance. With computers made so easy to use, it hardly seemed worth the bother to understand the complexities of how they really worked. Still others found programming confining. "I like working with people more. I don't like sitting in front of a screen," said Charles Stake, a George Washington University student who feels quite at ease writing computer code. Stake pondered a computer degree but now hopes to attend medical school.

This rapid shift away from computing degrees has experts concerned that some of the best minds will bypass an industry in dire need of top talent. "The familiarity with the tools of the trade have given people a false sense of what being a computer scientist means," said Eric Roberts, who directs the undergraduate computer science curriculum at Stanford University. "There are tremendous intellectual challenges -- software {problems} are open-ended."

Said David J. Eskra, president of Pansophic Systems Inc., an Illinois software company, and chairman of the industry trade group Adapso: "If we don't have access to people who are interested in going behind the covers {of computers}, then we lose our technology edge. Other countries are going to fill that void."

The disinterest in computers appears to bear no relation to the job prospects in the field. Barring a prolonged recession, jobs for people with programming or computer-design skills seem certain to grow, cutting across virtually all sectors of today's information-hungry society. As much as anything, companies cherish workers who can tame computers to organize, analyze, capture and distribute an overflow of data.

"You've got a situation where the opportunities exist in every industry, in every organization and in every office," said Victor Lindquist, placement director at Northwestern University.

In the past two years, the university's annual survey of hiring plans of 250 employers found graduates with computer science degrees were in third-highest demand, after students with degrees in engineering and accounting. Computer science graduates' average starting pay, at $29,100, also ranked near the top.

The drop in computing degrees reflects a broader decline in graduates in all sorts of scientific disciplines that is likely to be exacerbated by the shrinking pool of college-age Americans. That contraction prompted the National Science Foundation to project a cumulative shortfall of 675,000 bachelor's graduates in sciences and engineering by 2006, when compared to the number of graduates that would have been produced at the mid-1980s rate.

One comforting fact for employers is that many bright students, while not computer majors, have a natural sense of logic and enough basic computer courses under their belts to move easily into programming jobs.

Moreover, the number of graduate computing degrees granted continues to rise.

And some U.S. firms hungry for computer talent are finding an unusual source of supply in the growing community of well-trained Soviet immigrants. Fireman's Fund insurance company, for one, has hired 10 Soviet programmers within the past year. "We're tapping into a pool of experience," said Patrick Mason, a human resources specialist at the firm. "In the long term, it's going to do us real well."