With 1978 preparations already under way, the upcoming ninth running of the American College Theater Festival at the Eisenhower poses some questions.

Admittedly, this immensely complex gathering has had its ups and downs in quality, but here we have a distillation of what is not necessarily the best but is surely representative of a coming generation's vision of American theather.

While estimates vary, some 10,000 students in nearly 400 college and university theater departments are involved. It is absurb to think that these students will be making their livings in their hoped for profession, but soon a million young Americans will have devoted time and energy to the scheme and, if nothing else, will form a more discriminating audience for theater crafts.

For this reason, it should be asked, why do certain organizations who might offer some financial help stand aloof from the festival?

The National Foundation for the Arts makes no contribution to this markedly national artistic endeavor. The National Foundation for the Humanities evidently prefers to back British-filmed Shakespeare over a unique American venture into the humanities.

Unless they happen to win a berth in the festival, the local universities and colleges conspicuously stay away as groups, though individuals do show up to see what their peers are doing elsewhere. Why is this adjunct to their theatrical understanding not part of assigned class work?

The mixing from various regions of the country is a major point of the national festival, but expenses allow each group to see the work of only one other. Why have the local institutions not opened their doors to house their fellows? Why is there no mixing by potential hosts?

The festival work best at the regional level. The eight groups that come to Washington are chosen from 13 regions covering the entire nation. I've been to a few of the regionals and the atmosphere tingles. At least something of quality shows up at each. You never know what to expect.

An eye-opener is the physical equipment on college campuses that often is so superior to commercial theater's outdated equipment. Thanks to a mix of tax money, sparked by private gifts from local individuals, unversity theater complexes sometimes contain three or four sparkling new auditoriums, with workships and rehearsal and storage space, accessories denied even the most skilled professionals.

Fortunately, some professionals are cottoning to the potentials of sharing their experience with the college tyros, unqestionably raising standards in surprising places.

Financing the festival is intricate. Suggested by actress Peggy Wood as a result of her own campus performances, the festival began as ajoint venture of the Smithsonian Institution and the Kennedy Center three years before the Center opened.

With the Smithsonian phased out, the Alliance for Arts Education, a joint program of the Center and the HEW's Office of Education, is increasingly vital. One of its many grassroots projects, the American Theater Association (ATA) serves as both producer and financial contributor to state, regional and national festivals. Producing director David Young is busy with details all year, as was a ACTV's original director, Frank Cassidy. Most of the time it's one-man HQ operation.

To its credit, AMOCO Oil Company has continued through six years as a financial backer. When the budget has gotten out of whack, Kennedy Center's unpaid chairman Rogert L. Stevens has quietly made up the difference from his own pokcet. He's begged for silence about this but it's time it got into the record.

Originally, familiar plays were to have been the vehicle for young talents. This year, four of the eight works are new.

A highly stimulating evening will be next Sunday's Irene Ryan competition, founded by the late TV star whose own lack of education prompted her to provide that winners need not devote the award money to drama schooling. "Any education adds to life," concluded the Beverly Hillbillies' Granny.

So the chance for a trip around American colleges will be down by the Potomac these next two weeks. For special groups in search of tickets, Lily Polk Guest's Friends of the Kennedy Center may be able to help at 254-3718.