DOUG ATWELL escaped from the chaos, as military helicopters hovered overhead and 750 helmeted police swung riot clubs. Four days later, 12,600 Vietnam protestors, many bent on disrupting traffic, were penned in an open-air stockade at RFK Stadium.

Atwell, a rebellious Army sergeant at home on leave, wasn't one of them. He ran along backstreets to escape the dragnet at the 1971 May Day riots.

Ten years later, Atwell has been transformed into a registered Republican--with an earring in one year. He even cut his shoulder-length brown hair before winning election last year as George Washington University's student body president with support from a wide range of students, including gays, blacks and fraternity members.

Gone are the days when young Republicans apologized their way through college. The mood is shifting on Washington area campuses to reflect conservative Main Street America. Descendants of the '60s radicals are underwhelmed by politics, finding comfort in Cold War conversation behind their books. That moral intensity, that sense of crisis is missing in the vocabulary of many campus activists today.

"People tend to romanticize the past, but I don't think the good old days in the '70s were that damn good," says Atwell, 30, a father of two who is finishing his senior year in history and political science while working part time at a liquor store. "At first I was perceived as a radical because I don't sound like a Republican. But I've gotten smart and realize that you've got to get inside the house to get the rules changed. Nothing happens by throwing rocks outside."

In these times, Washington area college students are turning in upon themselves, finding heroics in balancing their checkbooks rather than taking over the dean's office. Soaring tuition costs and cuts in student aid are forcing most of them to work at least part time, cutting into time for activism.

This "lifeboat mentality"--a shift that began in the late 1970s--is, in many ways, a return to the 1950s conservatism. What appears to be shaping campus politics is not the New Right or the draft or women's rights or defense spending, but the dollar. Ultimately, student activists contend, that is a personal issue that isn't powerful enough to send working students into the streets to protest.

"You never would have seen this in the '60s; it never could have happened here. College Republicans are gathering signatures for a charter at Howard University," says Joseph Perkins, managing editor of The Hilltop, the university's student newspaper. "There is a move toward the right, a more conservative spirit on campus."

That view isn't shared by Walter Woods, Howard's student president. He believes that Howard students are generally "outraged over the blatantly racist social policies of Reagan." But, Woods contends, "The method of dealing with issues has changed. Students are registering blacks (to vote), preparing (tax forms) for their community, advising small businesses. That doesn't leave a lot of time for demonstration, especially when most of them work, too."

If there is a quiet student activism on campuses in 1981, it pales in the memory of the 1960s radicalism. That troubles Arthur Levine, a Carnegie Foundation senior fellow and author of When Dreams and Heroes Died: A Portrait of Today's College Student, published last year.

"The myth of the 1960s college student should be left behind," warns Levine. "As an epitaph it might simply be acknowledged that if today's college students seem puny in the shadow of the recollected 1960s, so too would the actual students of that decade in comparison to the myths that have grown up about them."

Yet even the symbols of yesterday's activism are collapsing under the weight of today's student apathy on campuses like George Washington University. In October the D.C. Public Interest Research Group at GW, which was founded by Ralph Nader to be a leading voice on social and consumer issues, died with $4,000 in the bank because nobody wanted to lead the organization.

Whether it's apathy or disorganization, the liberals teethed on '70s crusades are scrambling to survive on many area campuses. At GW, the Young Republicans are thriving, while two student Democratic groups--the Young Democrats and College Democrats--are warring over leadership and the Student Association has stepped in to mediate.

The scene is even bleaker for Democrats at Georgetown University. Next year Democrat Brian Reeve, 19, may be transferring to the University of North Carolina because he lost about $1,600 in student aid after the Reagan cuts. When he leaves, the Georgetown College Democrats stand a good chance to fold. Reeve is attempting to reorganize them, but it's an uphill battle.

"The New Right has almost become in vogue. The new conservatism goes along with the whole preppie Georgetown mystique," said Reeve, a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. "We don't have any fraternities or sororities here so the socializing goes on through clubs like the College Republicans because they throw good beer bashes. We don't even have a budget yet."

In this atmosphere, if anyone is keeping score at Georgetown University, it's Young Republicans 520 members, College Democrats 12.

"The bias against conservatism has evaporated since Reagan took over," says Georgetown College Republicans president Joseph Kelliher, 20, who presented President Reagan with a petition supporting Polish workers at a White House reception in late October. "The Democrats started losing strength with Carter in the White House because he just didn't appeal to college-age students. Whereas Reagan is 70 years old, and he seems to be almost revolutionary. College students like that."

Even the Reagan administration's hefty cuts in student aid have failed to stir up protests among local college students. Kelliher, a junior majoring in international politics, sees it this way: "A lot of students realized that was a free ride. The government was paying people to borrow money. I don't think that many people will be hurt; I don't think the restriction on student aid was anything unjust. . . .Students are changing. I guess I wouldn't have fit in here in the '60s. All that enthusiasm for demonstrations was more social than political anyway."

At the University of Maryland College Park campus, senior Linda Shrieves sometimes pages through old bound copies of The Diamondback, the student newspaper. She finds herself looking back at front-page accounts of '60s protests and wishing she could step into the faded photographs.

"Sometimes you wonder if you are in the wrong era," says Shrieves, a senior journalism major who is assistant managing editor of The Diamondback. "You can't get a reaction from these people; it's like they don't care. The only issues that excite this campus are anything that pits the Greek system against anything else. People are returning to the ignorance and bliss of the '50s or maybe narcissism, the 'Me' decade to the hilt."

At the height of the 1960s' protests at the College Park campus, zoology professor Howard Brinkley remembers patrolling the campus until 3 a.m. to quiet students. Times have changed, says Brinkley, and "the most significant factor in student activism is economics.

"Believe me, I hardly know a student who hasn't got a job or borrowed money. And the faculty has largely the same considerations because salaries are so poor and courses are being reduced," says Brinkley, chairman of the university senate. "That does have an effect on the campus because there isn't that same vital interaction among faculty, students and administration that would have been there in a less threatening economic time. There is less interest in the common good."

If today's college students are intenseleorgey pragmatic and self-absorbed, that doesn't necessarily mean they are conservative, cautions Dean Hoge, associate professor of sociology at Catholic University. The only way to measure accurately campus trends is to study them over a half decade because college student attitudes tend to be volatile and constantly shift, he maintains.

"There's less idealism than there was 20 years ago. In a couple of respects, it is back to the '50s--there is greater trust in government and the military and greater support for the capitalistic ethos," says Hoge, who has just completed a study of trends in student values between 1952 and 1979.

There is one emotional, moral issue around which small numbers of D.C. area college students are starting to rally: abortion. At Georgetown and Catholic universities, anti-abortion groups have organized, and others are forming at American University and George Washington University.

"Students are more open-minded now about discussing abortion. It's a moral and theological issue that I talk about everywhere I go," says Helen Maroney, 19, president of Georgetown University's 30-member anti-abortion group, which has tripled in size this year.

Yet, for the anti-nuclear movement, this sort of single-issue activism has proved less effective. Even at the peak of the anti-nuclear protests in 1979, there were only 20 in the Students for Non-Nuclear Future at GW. Today there are only five.

"The situation is very dire, but I am convinced that we have to keep fighting," says Barbara Kiser, an organizer of the GW anti-nuke group. "The more conservative groups, the business groups, have a pull because this seems to be the era of the professional-oriented student."

At American University, the conservative shift has translated into a 100 percent increase in membership for the campus' College Republicans. Says Dave Argue, 20, the 200-member group's president, "There is more of a willingness to identify with the Republicans than in the past, even in a year without a presidential election."

To reorganize Democrats, the D.C. Federation of College Democrats is planning an outreach program to set up clubs on every university campus in the city by next May. But, says the federation's president, Steve Raabe of AU, "I honestly think there is a conservative trend on campuses nationwide. It's an organization problem many places, but at AU we've held our own and have about 100 College Democrats. Maybe it's because we have internships on the Hill or good Democrats (like former senator George McGovern) teaching here."

As the Democrats attempt to regroup, a liberal group called the Progressive Student Network is struggling to gather support locally. Rather than focusing on single issues, the anti-nuclear, anti-draft group has "broken with the dogmatic leftism on campus that alienated students years ago," says David Sapp, 26, a GW graduate student who is the D.C.-Baltimore coordinator of the network. However, at GW, he has been able to attract less than a dozen students to join his effort, and the network has not yet gained much strength on other campuses.

Clearly, it hasn't been a landmark year for student activism. As Walt Cramer, Georgetown University's activities director, says, "I've had a hell of a time getting students to do anything. I guess when the economy is down everybody is looking at himself. If it doesn't have a bearing on them getting into law school or getting a job, they just aren't getting involved."

That might change tomorrow, if Kijana Kimwando has anything to do with it. Kimwando, 20, a Howard pre- med major, is trying to rally blacks behind his 85-member All-African People's Revolutionary Party at Howard.

"They cut one of my brother's financial aid, and he said, 'Let's go over and take over a building.' I said once we get organized we can take over," says Kimwando. "We don't concern ourselves with just one issue. We want to organize students around the world to . . . once again control our own (African) land aseleorgend schools."

While Kimwando sounds fervent enough, the political dialogue on campuses is so quiet that some administrators wonder if there is any.

"I don't get any real sense of exzcitement or any sort of questioning. Students are very much into studying and looking at the economy," says Dorothy Brown, a historian at Georgetown University. "The intensity is not for social issues, but for intellectual life and course work. In the '60s the old clich,e students wanted to know was, 'What are you going to be?' Now, we're back to 'What aare you going to do?'"