The way Ned Spangler, an honor student in industrial engineering at Virgina Tech in Blacksburg sees it, his free trip to Europe was just compensation for the hard work and sacrifice it took to get top grades.

"It's a nice pat on the back for the students who do well," said Spangler, a junior from Richmond, as he went through customs at Dulles Airport last week. "You really exert yourself, and when you do, you miss out on some things. So a trip like this helps."

Spangler and 55 other top students from the College of Engineering at Visginia State University and Polytechnic Institute returned Friday from a two-week trip to Europe, paid for by the college as part of a new and ambitious campaign to attract and reward academic excellence.

"We did it as an incentive to the really bright youngester," said Paul E. Torgersen, dean of the College of Engineering. "We took the top 10 percent of the students in the junior class in the COllege of ENgineering and we sent them to Europe for two weeks. We paid the hotel bills. We bought their breakfast. These students were selected strictly on the basis of academic achievement.It's a very elite group."

The European trip is one part of an overall Virginia Tech effort that includes the awarding of scholarships solely on merit rather than on economic need. Its purose is to attract top students to the state's land grant college.

Both are being financed by a $6 million bequest from the estate of John Lee Pratt of Stafford, a former General Motors executive who died in 1975 at the age of 96. In all, Pratt left $60 million to public and private colleges in Virginia.

At Virginia Tech, besides financing the European trip, which will be an annual affair, the money will support 150 to 200 scholarships a year at the College of Engineering, according to Torgersen.

Stipends will be between $250 and $2,000, and the grants will be made strictly on the basis of merit, said Torgersen. "Need has nothing to do with it."

The effort to seek out and reward academic excellence at Virgina Tech is in line with a national trend in which large public colleges are competing more aggressively than ever for students. Academic scholarships, without regard to need, are one device, but at Virginia Tech, officials say they hope the prospects of a free trip to Europe also will be helpful in drawing top academic talent to Blacksburg.

It cost $45,000 to sent the 56 students and four staff members to Europe for two weeks, college officials said, and the group toured England, Belgium and the Netherlands.

There were visits to steel mills, a refinery, a brewery and an arms factory as well as the traditional complement of museums and cathedrals.

"It was partly designed to make them more familiar with manufacturing operations as they exist in Europe," said Torgersen.

"Increasingly we're seeing American companies with an international component and most of the companies that come here to recruit students do have an international component."

Arriving back at Dulles Friday, students were generally enthusiastic about the trip, although some had mixed feelings.

"It was really great. It was a cultural experience and I really enjoyed It. Some people, like myself, couldn't afford to go any other way," said Spangler, the student from Richmond.

"We saw a lot, but it was really rushed, said Bob Yescavage of Springfield. "I bougth a T-shirt for $43 in Brussels. I guess they took me for a ride.

"You have to wonder whether something like this might make grades overstressed, more than they are already," said Yescavage, a student in electrical engineering.

"One of the purposes of the trip is to encourage academic achievement among the students," said Tom Bronez, an electrical enginneering student from Alexandria. "Once this gets around the college, it will give the students something to shoot for."

For Chris Walke of Richmond, a student in mechanical engineering, the trip meant the first time in his life he'd been on an airplane.

"If I'd known about this when I was freshman, I'd have worked even harder," said Walke. "We did get a

"The good thing about it was that tant to engineers."

"The good hing about it was that all the different engineering departments were represented," said Kristian Hessenius of Roannoke. "It gave the engineering students a chance to learn from each other."