Woodrow Wilson, known better as the president of Princeton than of the United States, believed that "the purpose of education is to make the young as unlike their elders as possible." To that end, plus others, some 40 academic leaders met at Georgetown University recently for the first convening of the Coalition of College Presidents for Collegiate Civic Responsibility.

A word, first, about the presidents. They appeared refreshed to be talking of values of service that they cared about. College presidents -- in the name of fattening the endowment or raising money to build the new science wing or sports center -- scrape before so many rich people that they are often forced to put aside opportunities to develop the intellectual and emotional richness of their students. The kids pursue learning, the presidents must pursue bucks.

Freed from that for two restful days, the presidents wondered how the young can be roused to practice the kind of altruism and idealism that many of their elders do not.

The surface answer is, why even try: Students are in the grip of frenzied self-absorption. A survey of college students reported by the Education Commission of the States found that "the values showing the greatest increase since 1972 were being very well-off financially, being an authority, having administrative responsibility for others, and obtaining recognition. The values which showed the largest decline in importance since 1972 were helping others, promoting racial understanding, cleaning up the environment, participation in community-action programs and keeping up with political affairs."

The dream of "being very well-off financially" reached 69 percent in 1983, up from 40 percent 10 years earlier. In a similar period, the goal of "developing a meaningful philosophy of life" declined from 82 to 44 percent.

Students aren't solely to blame. Before they become other-centered they have to be lured away from being self-centered. In subtle ways, college administrations did not tell the young that community service -- from tutoring the illiterate to volunteering at the local shelter for the homeless -- was as crucial a part of education as a high-grade point average. Commencement programs list the cum laude graduates but how many also list the students who perform community service? Heart as well as brains should graduate with honors.

Messages are sent in other ways. How many schools put as much energy into their campus service programs -- if they have them at all -- as into sports or ROTC programs? How many presidents invite the directors of soup kitchens to campus with the same relish that they ask board chairmen? Students pick up their values in areas like that much more than in Orientation Day speeches.

Student narcissism and presidents looking for dollars are anything but the whole story. Examples of positive moves are available, if we would take time to look. Activism and volunteer service programs are flourishing on many campuses. At Stanford University in 1983, President Donald Kennedy appointed an assistant for public service. Community-service fairs were organized, as well as the Stanford Volunteer Network and the Public Service Center. In two years, more than 500 students were at work in community projects. The number of people applying for the Peace Corps and Volunteers in Asia nearly tripled.

The Education Commission of the States, which organized the meeting at Georgetown, reports that many other schools are serving their students by emphasizing service. At Notre Dame, more than 1,000 are committed to working in service activities. Five years ago at Harvard, less than 300 students were involved at Phillip Brooks House, a campus volunteer program. Last year, more than 1,000 students were volunteering. Thirty-four percent of the class of 1983 donated time to public service; for the class of 1984, it jumped to 48 percent. At Susquehanna University 225 students out of 1,800 live in "project houses" that involve themselves in service programs. The State University of New York at Albany places 800 students in 250 community and government agencies.

From that, it isn't all career anxiety or success stress. Frank Newman, the president of the commission and who led the meeting at Georgetown, is arguing sensibly that if service is important in education then more educators need to learn how to instill and inspire it. He is doing that himself. Take a moment to reflect on what we owe students, he is telling the university presidents. They are owed a sense of what originally drew the presidents into education, a love of serving others.

If the students haven't been exposed to that ideal after four years, they have a right to go to the registrar and demand their money back. They haven't been educated, they've been cheated.