Yale. Harvard. Stanford. Princeton. They're the top names in higher education -- titans of tradition, quality and prestige. Serious students and their parents would give their life's savings for those acceptance letters.

Or would they?

With a grade average of 3.92, Beth Barr ranks sixth of 439 at Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School, a Montgomery County public school that annually sends about 8 percent of its graduating class to Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges. Barr, 17, is smart, attractive, a hard worker. She fits the elite college admissions profile in every way -- except one: Her first choice among colleges is the University of New Hampshire.

Like a growing number of high school seniors nationwide, Barr's bottom line in choosing a college is, alas, the bottom line -- the price tag. While campus location and quality of education are factors, Barr, who also applied to the universities of Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, Bucknell and Dartmouth, says today's high cost of college education is most likely to sway her final decision.

"I was really interested in the University of Vermont, but its tuition is up . . .," says Barr, who describes her family income as upper-middle. "At New Hampshire, it's about half as much . I really wanted to make sure I had money in college for other things."

If Madison Avenue marketed college education like beer, the operative slogan this year would be "Less Great! Tastes Filling!" Top-notch institutions offering high quality for a high price continue to attract 15 or more applicants per freshman vacancy. But, according to some education experts, never before has attention been more intently fixed on the lesser known and even "no-name" schools now flexing credentials as "the best of the rest." Unable to confer Ivy pedigrees, they provide instead simply good degree programs at affordable prices. In other words, a good deal.

"Viable alternatives" is how B-CC career information specialist Judy Hunt describes them. Hunt matches seniors such as Beth Barr with colleges. There are indications, Hunt says, that families of college-bound students are scrutinizing, more than before, the Best Deal schools. Although the B-CC class of '85 collected 36 Ivy League and Seven Sisters acceptances, it also received 33 invitations from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, nine from the University of Vermont, Burlington, six from the University of California, Berkeley, and five from both the University of Virginia and the University of Colorado, Boulder, all among state universities that some experts claim are gaining ground on the Ivys in quality if not prestige.

"Students here are still very name conscious, unfortunately," says Hunt. "They still think you get hired after college graduation because of the name of your school. But there is an increased awareness of what's 'cost effective' -- among parents more than the students."

A small Michigan prep school recently ran head-on into the phenomenon, according to Richard Moll, dean of admissions at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Public Ivys (Viking, $18.95). In a letter sent to college admission officers, the prep school advised that "One notable difference in this year's college placements was due almost entirely to economics and may call for a new category on our placement list: Accepted at first choice college (usually private or more selective) but attending another that costs less."

The message is clear, contends Moll: "Even parents with ready cash are wondering if 'Olde Ivy' is worth two or three times the price of a thoroughly respectable public institution."

The emergence of good-deal academia is motivated by several converging changes in the U.S. economy and higher education -- not higher costs alone.

"With the cost of college continuing to go up at double the rate of CPI [consumer price index]," says New York Times education editor Edward Fiske, whose new guide, The Best Buys in College Education (Times Books, $9.95), is about to go into a second printing after six weeks on book stands, "more and more people are saying it's not worth that additional debt and strain on the family to get into a name college that will be recognized by the neighbors."

Fiske, whose book claims to identify 221 colleges "that offer high quality education at reasonable cost," harangues about the crippling cost of education with some chilling statistics:

*The price tag for four years of education at a public university rose by nearly 12 percent a year between 1979 and 1984.

*The nation's most prestigious and selective universities have already topped $15,000 a year for tuition, room and board.

*Students in the Class of 2,000 can expect to pay $45,000 for four years at a public institution and $140,000 at a private one.

He says when you add to that the Reagan administration's accelerated efforts to cut federal funding for students with financial need, the pocketbook principle is increasingly applied.

Another influence: The drop in college-age population through the 1990s, explains Moll, is bound to affect enrollments and revenues -- and therefore costs and competition -- at a time when parents seem to be less willing to sacrifice, as their parents did, for the next generation's expensive college education.

The bargain-shopper mentality has barged in the front door of college admissions offices. Consider tiny Hendrix College. Undergraduate enrollment: 990. Fiske trumpeted the obscure liberal-arts school in Conway, Ark., in his guide: "For those who have discovered it at the foot of the Ozarks, Hendrix provides top-quality liberal-arts education for little more than the price of a state university . . . students pay for about half of what they get, and since what they get is first-rate facilities, good professors, and the most innovative curriculum in several states, any way you look at it Hendrix looks good."

Hendrix's vice president for enrollment Rudy Pollan takes pains not to exaggerate the recent surge in inquiries and requests for application forms: "Healthy -- moderate is too mild a word." The school's current "higher visibility" is attracting more out-of-state interest, Pollan says, and is luring top Arkansas students who previously looked East to the Ivys.

The other side of the coin is that college bargain shopping has motivated some oft-overlooked or otherwise academically marginal institutions to repair public images with shored up programs and publicity. The University of Florida's August issue of its official quarterly alumni magazine, for instance, announced it had been elected to the Association of American Universities (AAU), a "highly selective" organization of only 53 other colleges, including Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Duke and MIT -- not bad company for a school that Fiske says has been better known for football and partying.

"This admits the University of Florida to the inner circle of academic excellence," Florida Gov. Bob Graham said at a news conference in Tallahassee. The university's president, Marshall Criser, added, "The citizens of Florida have long waited for the recognition of one of their universities as being among the best of the public and private institutions in this country."

In his Best Buys guide, Fiske says UF is "steadily gaining an academic reputation to match its size." He calls it "the most improved state university in the country."

Moll, who calls himself "a specialist in altering institutional images," didn't include UF in his guide to Public Ivys, but says, "It's my understanding that Florida is deserving of a better image," adding, "I think were going to see a lot of this positioning by a lot of colleges. We bill [UC at] Santa Cruz as a western Brown, and we can document that it really is."

The upshot, claim Moll and Fiske: There's a reshuffling under way of the traditional pecking order of American colleges and universities. Moll focuses on an emerging alternative elite among public universities and contends that, at their best, they compete toe to toe with widely heralded private colleges.

"Public higher education has been in the back seat in terms of public regard and public prestige for dozens and dozens of years in this country," he says. "But public universities have come of age. It was time for somebody to say that there were at least eight public universities out there that seem to be every bit as good in every way as the eight Ivys. And by the way, they only cost about half of what it costs to go to the privates."

But Fiske says college ranking will increasingly have less to do with public versus private or expensive verus cheap. "The split is quality or low quality," he says. "There's a polarization that's occurring between good institutions and lesser institutions in both the public and private sectors. Institutions that are not real good quality are not going to survive. Those in the middle are doing everything they can to intensify their programs.

"We successfully demonstrated in Best Buys that there are dozens of schools in this country where you can get a four-year education that will cost at least $20,000 and $25,000 less than you'd pay at comparable institutions . . . if you're willing to forgo the tunnel vision that often exists in choosing name colleges and settle for less prestige or less readily identifiable places."

The shift already is seen in recent college ratings. In its Nov. 25 cover story, U.S. News & World Report makes a quick, obligatory nod to Stanford, Yale, Harvard, Princeton and six other "National Universities" before turning to eight less predictable classifications -- 80 institutions, from Mills College in California to Calvin College in Michigan, that are said to excel in specific categories of higher education. In other words, they're good deals for some students.

But are students really buying the "best buys" logic?

That depends on who you are, says R. Inslee Clark, president of the Horace Mann School, a highly academic and liberal-arts oriented secondary school in the Bronx. At Horace Mann, 55 percent of last year's graduating class went to Ivy League colleges. That pattern hasn't changed and probably won't anytime soon, says Clark, formerly the director of admissions at Yale.

"The public is obviously shopping, and they're not going to spend $13,000 or $14,000 a year for a private school when they can go to some public schools and get almost as good an education," says Clark. "At Horace Mann, we may be flying in the face of what others are encountering in terms of a national mood. But most of our families either scrape together what is needed or they've got what it takes not to let finances make that decision for them."

Jack McCune, assistant headmaster of St. Albans School in the District, echoes Clark's analysis: "I haven't seen a decided shift here. Out of 73 in last year's senior class, 22 went to Harvard, Princeton or Yale. The rest would've taken offers from them."

Says Fiske: "I'm not putting down going to a good school if you can afford it. My hunch is that people will continue to kill to get into the top of the Ivy League and to pay its costs. But in the long run, the most important thing about an education is what you learn, and that you have professors who care about you. I'm saying that if you are prepared to attain less recognition for $25,000 lower in price, that now is an option for you."