The first time Ellenore Glenn heard something was up was when "some pretty intense looking people" were spotted scouring the tiny Loudoun County campus of Northern Virginia Community College.

"A friend came back and told me she had heard two of them talking about where a helicopter could land," said Glenn, a part-time secretary at the school. "I didn't know what to think."

This was no real-life John Le Carre thriller, a however, but an advance squad of Secret Service agents and White House staffers checking security and logistics for President Jimmy Carter's arrival yesterday to sign the Higher Education Act Amendment of 1980.

The last-minute choice of NVCC's smallest campus -- one large brick building on Lessburg Pike near Sterling -- for the signing of a major piece of educational legislation both stunned and delighted the enthusiastic crowd of 2,000 who crushed forward to catch a glimpse of the president at 2:30 p.m. yesterday.

"Let's say they were quite surprised but very pleased," said one White House aide. Acting Loudoun campus provost Max Bassett was a little more emphatic.

"Holy cow . . . He's coming here?" Bassett asked when White House staff members told him at 10 a.m. Thursday that they wanted the act signed at the college of 3,300 students. Bassett was so pleased that he forgot to ask when the president was coming.

"I think that this was especially appropriate," said a beaming Bassett yesterday, "it's real recognition." Traci Lake, a 20-year-old art student who cut a class to witness the event, added, "I can't believe he came way out to the boondocks for this."

While House staff aides confided it was just the reaction they were hoping for. The visit billed as nonpolitical, followed by one day an appearance in Arlington by former president Gerald Ford to help boost the campaign of 10th congressional district Republican candidate Frank Wolf's opponent, incumbent Joseph Fisher, was at Carter's side yesterday.

A similar foray into Northern Virginia is scheduled for Tuesday, when Carter is slated to sign a mental health bill into law at the Woodburn Center in Anandale, it was announced yesterday.

Besides Fisher, the president was accompanied yesterday by Secretary of Education Shirley Hofstedtler and two members of Congress who vigorously supported the Higher Education Act, Sen. Clairborne Pell (D-R.I.) and Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.).

The act will provide $48.4 billion in federal aid to college students and institutions over the next five years. It increases the maximum amount undergraduates can borrow from $7,500 to $12,500 and raises the combined amount for graduate students from $15,00 to $25,000. It also creates a new loan program under which parents can borrow for college costs at a 9 percent interest rate.

The measure also provides money for minority colleges, research and libraries.

In a prepared speech, delivered in the campus cafeteria, Carter called the act "an historic piece of legislation," adding that it was "appropriate that we come to a community college for the signing of this act."

Then, seating himself at a podium, he quipped, "Now I have to decide whether to sign this or veto it," as the audience erupted in laughter.

"Raise your hands if you want me to sign this . . . Well, that seems unanimous. This is genuine participatory democracy at work here," Carter said.

Afterward, Horace N. Lassiter of Lessburg, who works for the Blue Ridge Democratic Committee, called the signing part of Carter's "Campaigning in Loudoun County. He hasn't been out here before. It's real nice, the best thing to happen to Loudoun in a long time."

But Rich Dawson, a 19-year-old student with an impending exam, had another view. Describing himself as unimpressed by "all the hullabaloo," he said, "It's not going to help me pass calculus, then I'm not interested."