They have no football teams. No cheerleaders. No stadiums. No glee clubs. In a good year, student enrollment at each one won't match the registration of a single state university lecture course. Few have existed long enough to grow ivy on their walls, and none has the name recognition of Yale or Harvard.

While so-called "corporate colleges" are practically unknown to the public, they're currently giving some traditional university programs a run for their money.

"I was as dumb about it as the general public," admits Bruce Luhrs of Merrimack, N.H., who last month graduated from the Wang Institute of Graduate Studies. "I kind of stumbled upon Wang. I'd heard of it, but I wasn't sure what it was."

Luhrs no more typifies the standard grad student than Wang exemplifies the traditional graduate school. At 33, he had already worked for nine years testing computer software at Digital Equipment Corp., in Maynard, Mass. Although he had taken night classes, he confesses his plans to earn a master's degree "hadn't gone very far."

Then last year, Digital offered employes a chance to brush up on the latest technology. It granted Luhrs a paid leave of absence for one year to pursue a master's degree at any engineering department in the nation. He passed by the MITs and the Cal Techs for Wang's master's of software engineering program -- one he calls "exactly what I was looking for."

Education and industry experts say degree-granting institutions developed by major corporations and industries are gaining recognition for precisely that sort of narrow-interest education. Although they make up only a small part of the total corporate investment in education (an estimated $40 billion annually and 8 million student employes) that competes today, dollar for dollar, student for student, with traditional higher education, the 18 corporate colleges now open to the public are expected to increase by nine before the end of the decade. The number could multiply "to 100 -- if not hundreds -- of corporate degree programs in the next 50 years," according to a recent Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching special report, "Corporate Classrooms: The Learning Business."

Numbers alone may not dismiss the old bromide, "Those that can, do; those that can't, teach." But corporations known for their "can do" approaches are taking to the classrooms to prove they can not only teach, but teach better.

With the traditional education systembeing called a jalopy in need of an overhaul, educators have mixed emotions about the sleek corporate competitor they see coming on fast in the rear-view mirror. The profound gap between workplace needs and what the schools are providing has forced industry into every level of education -- from tutoring employes in the three Rs to training in job-related and technical skills. Educators generally applaud efforts such as IBM's new Corporate Technical Institute in Thornwood, N.Y., which will provide "state-of-the-art" technical training to employes starting this fall. Educators encourage the likes of McDonald's Hamburger U. in Oak Brook, Ill., where associate degrees in business management are conferred only to students who serve under the golden arches. But they admit that figures such as the $300 million big business spent on remedial reading programs last year smarts. And now, more corporate institutes compete directly with colleges and graduate schools.

"My response to the corporate university? Great. Let 'em try it," says John Fowler, director of the Triangle Coalition for Science and Technology, a national group of businesses, scientists and educators coordinating the retooling of American science education.

"Universities need competition," explains Fowler, who is also director of special projects at the National Science Teachers Association. "But, in general, I think there's a reluctance on the part of big industry to do something it doesn't know much about. The major reason corporations have come into education . . . is that they realize the product coming to them from the schools is flawed."

There are other reasons. As John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene, coauthors ofRe-inventing the Corporation (Warner, $17.50), point out, big business' first priority is to make money -- not to grant diplomas. That won't change. But a confluence of trends in American society is changing how big business views its involvement in education, even at the highest levels. Call it self-interest, not altruism.

"It is a function of survival," says Naisbitt. "Many things are coming together. It is absolutely caused by the deteriorating product of our school systems . . . at a time when America is entering the information age, which requires literacy.

"In addition, we've got people coming into the labor force at one-half the rate because of the 'baby bust' from 1965 to 1980. So we've got a seller's market for the next 15 years -- terrific competition between companies for the best workers. . . . In the marketplace, a corporation will get an advantage by offering educational programs."

That, adds Aburdene, coincides with another trend -- education becoming prohibitively expensive. "You combine that with the baby bust, the competition for good people, the demands of the information age . . . [and] a school system designed to turn out factory workers," she says, "that's how change happens -- when changing values meet economic necessity."

Aburdene claims that for corporations to see improved education as self-interest is a breakthrough: "It's the beginning of seeing all of society as a system into which they themselves have to fit."

Charles Wolf Jr., dean of the Rand Graduate Institute in Santa Monica, Calif., agrees: "It is healthy -- one of a number of indications of the dynamism and innovation in American society at large. Nobody has the magic formula, the one way to educate. But there's a lot of work involved if [corporate colleges] are to have both merit and appeal."

On Nov. 16, the Rand Institute -- founded by the Rand Corp. -- will award 12 doctoral degrees in public policy analysis. Specializing in applying "scientific method to the study of domestic, international and defense policy issues," Rand last year received 93 applications, mostly from students who've already earned graduate degrees. It accepted 14.

"In '70, the program was mainly experimental," says Wolf, who helped create the school. "We weren't sure how it was going to go, where it was going to go." Today, he claims, no other institution granting public policy PhDs -- not Harvard or the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota -- can claim a "greater annual output" than Rand. The attraction, says Wolf, is that Rand combines classroom work with on-the-job training in one of the think tank's research projects.

"The reasons for doing it," says Wolf, "were to bridge the gap between academia and the real world of public policy, to move between scholarly work and budgets and deadlines. We also thought it would make a contribution to Rand -- having bright and questioning students around . . . "

Rand is collaborating with UCLA to add subfield programs in health policy and in Soviet international behavior.Wolf expects a 20 percent expansion of programs and student body by the end of the decade, including the addition of nondegree programs for executives and policy analysts.

"We are not planning to expand into other fields of the arts and sciences," he says. "We don't have any special competence in offering degrees in English, the classics or medieval history or musicology. But in our domain, we can say that we do as well or better."

From the Wang campus, located on 200 acres of a former seminary in Tyngsboro, Mass., vice president for development Jack Christensen agrees that the future of corporate colleges is in narrow niches overlooked elsewhere. "Our charter is broad enough to include everything but law and medicine," says Christensen of the Institute founded in 1979 by the benefactor of Wang Laboratories Inc., An Wang. "Other areas of engineering and sciences might be in our future. But I don't think it is very likely we'll get into the humanities."

While Wang grants only a single degree -- a one-year master's of software engineering -- and maintains a modest annual enrollment of about 60 students, that will soon expand, along with the facilities. "We expect enrollment to gradually increase," says Christensen. "But we don't think in terms of volume -- that's not what Dr. Wang had in mind."

What the doctor did have in mind is a graduate-level program, with a 6-to-1 student-teacher ratio, that "fills a void" in computer software education. The students: experienced professionals such as Bruce Luhrs. "Dr. Wang does not want us to compete with existing colleges," says Christensen. "Wang Institute believes that it has found a better way to do software engineering. It's our feeling that there are excellent programs in other disciplines already, so why invest our energies and resources in fields that are being well run?"

Still, Fowler and other academicians worry the clear-cut separation between Corporate College and Traditional U. could blur -- perhaps to the detriment of higher education.

"I don't think there's any conflict in the goals, in what the final output looks like," says Fowler. "But the cost-effective analysis of the corporate approach might hurt the breadth of a program. If the classics department can't bring in enough students, do you drop the classics department, even though you know you shouldn't? I think the corporate hand would be even heavier in that. I'm afraid an industry traditionally bound by ideas of productivity could use inappropriate measures for productivity in the classroom."

While Fowler supports corporate involvement in education, he fears success could breed a desire to do it all. Naisbitt and Aburdene predict a broadening of corporate courses as big business increasingly understands the benefits of employes with well-rounded, not narrow, educations.

"I don't have any problem with their teaching Homer and the Iliad," Fowler says. "Graduate work is always narrow, whether it's at IBM or MIT or Harvard. But if they come down and compete at the undergraduate level, I would worry that the bottom-line thinking and the goals of industry wouldn't overlap with what university goals should be."

Despite uncertainties, corporate colleges are here to stay, says Aburdene: "If and when the quality of education improves substantially at the primary and secondary level, you'll see a pullback in corporate involvement -- they're not in that because they want to be, but because they feel they have to be. On the other hand, the corporation evolving into a university is not an infatuation. That is going to evolve."