AMERICA's colleges and universities are becoming bettlegrounds again. $1But the issue today, unlike a decade ago, is not politics or ideology. It is purely and simply money. And this time the battles are not in the quads and the streets but in the quiet, carpeted suites of university presidents, student officers, treasurers and development specialists.

Exactly who the antogonists are in this conflict is sometimes hard to pinpoint -- except that college administrators agree they are the ones under fire and attacks are coming from a number of fronts. The outcome is sure to have a profound effect, not only on how colleges and universities are run next year or the year after, but on how accessible a college education will be to future young people.

"We're all professional gloom singers," says Richard Applegate, treasurer of Catholic University, and one of a number of private college and university officials in Washington interviewed about the financial state of higher education today.

First there was inflation which raised fuel, food and phone bills as well as everything else, and prompted the rising tuitions of the 1970s. Inflation remains the most intractable problem, according to many university administrators. Then came the declining numbers of "traditional" college students, that is 18-21 year olds. And colleges had to look to new markets -- primarily adults and foreign students -- to fill their desks.

Most recently the Reagan administration has dealt academia another blow by proposing cuts in areas ranging from scientific research grants to bulk mailing rate subsidies. The most disruptive, because of its timing -- this spring -- appears to be the administration's proposal that various student financial aid programs, including both grants and student loans, be trimmed or altered substantially, or both.

April is the month when most students are making plans for the coming academic year and putting together the means to pay for it. At Howard University, where 55 percent of the students receive Pell grants -- the basic educational opportunity grants based on need -- applications for next year's money were simply not even being accepted for several weeks during March, according to Goldie Claiborne, director of financial aid and student employment.

The holdup at Howard, and other colleges, was due to controversy over proposed Reagan cuts in the program. A compromise has apparently been reached between the administration and the House Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education, so applications are again being processed. Still uncertainty persists, and at Americn University, where 1,050 of the approzimately 4,500 undergraduates received some $1.1 million in Pell grant money this year, grant award letters have gone out with the disclaimer that "awards must be considered tentative" and that revisions may be necessary "some time during the summer."

"All we can do is hope the students are resourceful enough to come up with the necessary funds," said Betsy Davidson, assistant director of the office of financial aid.

Since the machinery of student loans and grants is complex, exactly who will be hurt by cuts in government-subsidized student assistance programs may not be clear until June when congressional action is expected. The National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities is now conducting a survey of students to determine the impact of proposed changes. Reagan administration officials acknowledge that new criteria could make about 100,000 students now receiving grants ineligible. Most of them come from families whose incomes range from $21,000 to $25,000.

"Our problem is, if Reagan does what he says he's going to do," said Howard's Claiborne, "It means the middle-income parent will be hurt. If the Pell grants are reduced, the poor students will be hurt."

Proposed cuts in the bulk-mailing subsidy available to nonprofit organizations also worry universities, which mail a number of catalogs, schedules and promotional materials to their students. "That would cost us tens of thousands of dollars," said Richard Berendzen, president of American University. But Berendzen is more concerned about the administration's plans to trim funds for scientific research. Projected cuts in the budgets for the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and other agencies which award research grants will mean there's less to spend in university labs.

"I find that very worrying," said Berendzen, and astronomer. "Our country is already bordering on 'scientific illiteracy.'"

The most visible result of the Reagan proposals so far has been uncertainty, since nobody can predict when they will be approved and the exact form they will take.

The bottom line, of course, is ithat if substantial cuts are made in student grants and loans, private colleges and universities could lose students to cheaper state institutions, although those too are having their problems and becoming more expensive.

"We're looking at a possible drop in enrollment for next year, based on grant cuts to students," said Applegate at private Catholic University, where the total package -- tuition plus books and living costs -- will reach $9,000 next year. "Either [students] come up with the money, or they can't come here."

"We have a large number of students who are dependent on Pell grants," said Johnson. "Some of those probably won't be able to come to G.W. or any other private institution."

Drops in enrollment, if they materialize, could create more financial-planning problems for colleges already trying to deal with inflation, the promised escalation in fuel costs after deregulation and a host of other headaches.

"At this point changes are so rapid that I'd be shocked if I weren't shocked," said Berendzen.

"I certainly don't see the future through rose-colored glasses," echoed Johnson at G.W. "The next 10 to 15 years are going to be very difficult."

The response of most of Washington's private colleges and universities to the current financial morass has been varied. Almost all have raised tuitions (for instance, tuition at A.U. will go from $4,690 this year to $5,310 next; at Georgetown the hike is from $4,970 to $5,750).Another tactic has been to defer maintenance. "We take care of the safety matters," said Applegate. "But we defer a lot -- cleaning, for instance. We used to clean every day. Now we're lucky if we can afford to do it once a week. Students are asked to take more responsibility for keeping things clean; $3.5 million worth of painting has been deferred. I hate to call it genteel shabbiness, but that's what it is."

"We are simply postponing physical plant improvement," said Berendzen.

Alumni appeals are going out to raise more money, but only for the general fund but specifically to beef up in-house scholarship awards, which universities anticipate they will need to make up for cuts in government-funded scholarships.

Berendzen is agressively going after money from foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals to enrich American University's endowment, which stands at little more than $5 million (compared with G.W.'s $26 million and Harvard's whopping $1.4 billion).

To convince the outside world that the university is deserving and can pull itself up by its academic bootstraps, he has cut the total number of students admitted, thus raising standards. The average SAT scores of incoming freshmen have risen 80 points in the last two years.

At Georgetown, "We're going to be looking at every area to try and cut costs over the next year," according to Joseph Petit, vice president for planning. "Low priority programs and services may be trimmed." At Georgetown the emphasis is on long-range planning, he said.

But further downtown, at George Washington, they've given up on the long views. "Four-year budget projections had been the procedure. Then last summer that was ditched -- in the middle of a projection -- because of the problems of inflation. This year, only the '81-'82 budget was approved," said Johnson.

G.W. has taken a very aggressive approach to it financial difficulties, raising tuitions (from $3,400 this year to $4,100 next year), charging students an "energy surcharge" this year (to be abandoned next year but with the understanding that it will be charged again if necessary), and shuffling faculty positions, when they become vacant, to departments where there is the most demand. Some slots have also been converted from tenure- to non-tenure-track.

In spite of all its efforts, however, G.W. has been running at a deficit. "We are not going to continue to operate at a deficit because we can't. . . . By the end of this year, we will have used all our reserves from the good years."

The golden egg, where G.W. is concerned, is likely to be real estate. The Edison and Henry buildings, which the university owns on the Pennsylvania Avenue side of its campus and whose mortgages will be paid of within the next five years, will represent the equivalent of $80 million in endowment (or $500 to $1,000 worth of tutition for each full-time student within the next five or six years, according to Johnson). The university plans another office building in the 2000 block of I Street NW., and owns land at 14th and H Streets, near the convention center site.

At Catholic, says Applegate, "We've broken even for the last three years, but cutting it close -- by about $100,000."

At Howard, where the fuel bill this year is likely to run as high as $8.5 million, the Reagan administration's current budget slashing mentality has officials worried. Approval of the university's federal subsidy (established by law in 1928), which is set at $155 million, is pending. "No cuts have been proposed for 1982 yet, but we're concerned," said Casper Harris, vice president for fiscal and business affairs at Howard. "We have a constant program of cutting costs."

Johnson, a slow-talking, pipe-smoking, apparently unflappable Hoosier who has been at his job at George Washington University for 27 years -- through thick and thin, as it were -- puts the problem for most colleges and universities in the following terms: "I'm just an old country bookkeeper, but 2 plus 2 make 4. And no organization can go on forever spending more than it takes in."

With less money coming in -- from the federal government via grants, or possibly, from fewer students with the means to pay their own way -- and fixed costs, particularly energy, likely to continue their ascent, the squeeze is on. c

Just how colleges, particularly the private ones which do not receive support from states, face the current economic challenges and whether all of them can stay in business remain to be seen. Whatever happens, Berendzen perdicts, "Higher education will be a very different enterprise in the '80s than it was in the '60s."