The American College Theater Festival, which bowed out of the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theater Sunday, has a meritorious aura about it. In fact, anyone cad enough to question so noble an enterprise has to feel a little like the reader of that National Lampoon solicitation with the starving puppy and the warning, "If you turn this page, we'll kill this dog."

But there were too many unseemly moments in the ACTF's two week stay here to pass unnoted. Some of the audiences, particulary as the festival wore on, were sparse and heavily composed of people who appeared less than thrilled to be there. (ACTF staffers admitted to employing a certain amount of coercion even to round up the audiences they got.)

The actors onstage also included some who, we have to hope, have other, more pressing interests. But regardless of their skills, the desirability of spending corporate money (AMOCO is the principal underwriter) to lure young Americans into a field with 90 percent unemployment and 99 percent degradation can be questioned.

A great deal was made, in the lengthy speeches that preceded this year's shows, of the unprecedented number of original student plays-four of eight. If there is one end of the American theater not over-saturated with young talent, it's the writing end-so this should be viewed as a heartening development. Kennedy Center officials report there is already a run on manuscripts of James Leonard Jr.'s "And They Dance Real Slow in Jackson," widely hailed as the standout show of the festival.

But the last original play, Richard Larsen's "Endangered Species" which played Thursday and Friday, raised questions about this aspect of the festival, too. If this was one of the year's top specimens of college playwriting-in other words, if the ACTF judges did their job-it is not pleasant to contemplate what they left behind.

In this UCLA-spawned tale of male chauvinism versus female self-help, both factions mouth an appallingly unoriginal and thick-headed series of observations on their battle of the sexes.

"A Kelly," says the husband (whose name is Kelly), "Doesn't hide behind a woman's skirts when there's a man's work to be done."

"I wouldn't be satisfied just being a wife and mother," says Mrs Kelly when she is asked to chuck her job and move to Alaska, where men are men. And when her husband bullies her, she notes that "bulging muscles don't make a man."

A certain technical crudity or overearnestness may be right and proper in a beginning playwright, but a college student, seems to me, has no more excuse than anybody else for trying to construct a play out of nonstop cliches.

Written with a sledgehammer and directed with a pickaxe, "Endangered Species" inspired the passing thought that the gap between professional and college theater may need widening rather than bridging. We can only hope the ACTF judges breached their trust when they chose this entry.

The ACTF, operating on your basic beauty-pageant model, begins at the local level. It ships judges out to inspect some 400 college plays and invites a small fraction of them to 13 regional college theater festivals. Then a national committee gets together and picks the best eight, which are transported at ACTF expense to Washington. Begun under Kennedy Center sponsorship even before the center had opened, the ACTF is now in its 11th year.

All the productions that make it here-and many that don't-are winners. The ACTF has seen to that by promoting an ever-widening array of prizes and fellowships with sponsors ranging from McDonald's to the William Morris Agency.The aim is to "honor the best" among college writers, actors and set designers, and "strengthen the rest."

It is hard to avoid the suspicion that the ACTF has slightly misrepresented itself. Its literature refers to a pool of 2,300 colleges and universities with drama programs, generating 10,000 productions that exploit the talents of 150,000 students "enrolled in formal classes in theater arts." The implication is that the ACTF has set out to identifying the cream of this vast crop-but the festival's structure makes that unrealistic even as an abstract goal.

For one thing, many colleges, some with superior drama programs, shun the competition, apparently unwilling to pay the cost of sending productions to the regional festivals. For another, the judging schedule requires ACTF shows to be mounted early in the academic year; and the unusually elaborate nature of this year's scenery, while impressive, suggests that colleges may put their institutional weight behind particular productions beforehand rather than waiting to see which ones deserve support.

If these suppositions are correct, the festival's organizers ought to take steps to get their ACTF togerther. They should consider tightening the festival schedule with fewer but better-attended performances of each play, incidentally enabling the participants to stay long enough to see each other's work. And they should restructure the schedule, entrance requirements and judging system so a whole year's worth and a nation's worthe of college theater can be considered.

The University of Florida at Gainesville deserves double thanks for (a) wiping out some of the memory of the UCLA effort that preceded it, and (b) giving ACTF-goers a look at two actors, Greta Lambert and E. James Hooks, who would shine in any context.