"College is no Shangri-La. It's not a magic passage to anywhere. It might have been at one time, when electricians weren't making $30,000 or when associate professors with Ph.D.s weren't making the same as D.C. bus drivers. College was a good material investment, and some tell me it still is."

Coming from a guy who never went to high school but instead trained as a foundryman at a trade school, those aren't suprising words. But Frank Turaj's educational story continued far beyond those Bridgeport, Connecticut days. In the Air Force, he earned his high school equivalency through the G.I. Bill and afterwards went off to college, then to graduate school. In college, being of a practical bent, he intended to major in economics and then head into law. But poetry and the clarity of the written word seduced him and he majored in literature instead.

Now, as dean of American University's College of Arts and Sciences, his vantage point prompts him to say: "College is still probably the only place to engage in a higher level of enjoyment in lifelong gratification of the intellect. For people with good minds, it is indispensable. Now, I'm not about to say there are no intelligent people who have never been to college -- that's a lot of hogwash. And, the fact is, if you decorate a moron with a Ph.D., it doesn't stop him from being a moron."

Dr. Turaj, noting that the collegiate movement a decade ago toward liberal arts has now swung back to more career oriented courses, advises that "the pendulum is self-correcting. I don't notice in the least that students are more included to be less adventurous in their intellectual experiences. Our English majors are down, but our English enrollments aren't," indicating that students are taking literature classes but are not majoring in it, preferring something more marketable.

He has "a pet prescription for all students: Do a double major -- one in a practical, vocational-oriented area and a second one in a non-vocational area -- business and art history, or chemistry and philosophy. You can't concentrate in everything, although the notion of getting a smattering of everything has something to say for it."

At a time when consumers go into trauma in supermarket aisles and into shock opening up tax bills, it's small wonder they question the ever-increasing costs of higher education. Tuition alone can range up to $5,000 a year, not even counting nine-month's worth of granola and french fries, books, and a bed in the dorm. The word from colleges in the past was that a degree, at whatever pricetag, was the key in the door of financial success.

Colleges aren't so quick to say that now, and not only because of all those Ph.D.s behind the wheels of taxis (some out of choice).

Howard University's Dr. Faustine Jones, a School of Education professor, explains that higher education "got too glib about what we would do. Education does not guarantee that you will make the most money. Look at any football player and you'll see that.

"For minority people especially -- and I am black -- we need to go to college. The big decisions are made by people who are well educated and for us to enter those realms of decision-making, we have to be well-educated, too," Dr. Jones contends.

She doesn't believe everyone ought to go to college at the ages of 18 to 22, or even go at all. Some should start right after high school, some work for a while, some attend part-time, and some pursue other avnues of fulfillment. As the job market changes, "many of us will have to re-tool as middleaged people, anyway," she cautions.

Paul Bragdon, president of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, feels strongly that college should not merely prepare a person for a job. For higher education to be restricted only to technical or vocational training "would be a license to obsolescence. All of our life is not spent in the workplace. Training for a particular thing is no guarantee. Institutions -- whether the federal government or private ones -- are looking more and more for men and women who can find the answers to the appropriate questions, to see what the likely alternatives are and the consequences of following them. So an educated generalist with a specialty added on becomes a responsible person."

Iowa's Grinnell College President A. Richard Turner notes, too, most jobs don't require much training but they do require "real human smarts."

"I've become a raving conservative in the past decade" about what college should provide, Turner says. He concludes that the basic tools of communication -- teaching, writing, speaking, computing on a high level -- are needed now more than ever before. "It's essential that people learn the habit of learning and learn to acquire flexibility."

Dr. William Ihlanfeldt, vice president for institutional relations and dean of admissions at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, says that, except in professions such as medicine and law, "the greatest return on investment is with some college, the least return is with a Ph.D." He argues that educational costs have kept pace with other expenses. "Education isn't any more expensive than it was in '68."

Figures from the Congressional Budget Office tend to support that viewpoint, at least for middle-income families. Between 1967 and 1 76, college costs at public institutions rose 74 percent, and at private institutions, 77 percent.In that same period, the median income for middle-class familes went up 79 percent and the median for families with 18-to-22 year-old dependents in college went up 87 percent. (These are pre-tax figures.) Janet S. Hansen and Lawrence E. Gladieux in their College Board monograph, Middle-Income Students: A New Target for Federal Aid? note that after-tax figures are more difficult to analyze. (Their report is available for $2.00 from College Board Publication Orders, box 2815. Princeton, N.J. 08541.)

In a 500-page study Government in Learning, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1977), educational economist Howard R. Bowen says there is no tidy "bottom line" that can evaluate the effectiveness of the cost of higher education, which in 1976-77 totalled $85 billion for institutional and student expenses. The network of 3,000 two-and four-year colleges and universities has 11 million students -- 7 million of whom are part-time. In 1974, Bowen writes, 25.2 percent of the population had attended college, and 13.3 percent of the population had graduated. The United States is only part-way toward its goal of "education for every person up to the limit of his (or her) potentialities," he says, recommending opening higher education up to more low-income and minority youths, as well as more adults, especially women.

Among higher education's side benefits, Bowen lists: narrowing the traditional differences in attitudes and behavior between the two sexes; delaying the age of marriage; providing for more thought, time, energy, and money for rearing children; and bringing about a good influence on spouses and siblings.

Grinnell President Turner says, "If college has just one payoff, it is providing the capacity to make choices intelligently. We are going to look back in the '80s and wonder why we ever questioned if college is worth it."