University of Maryland officials are considering establishing an "honors college" at the College Park campus aimed at attracting top students who educators say are often lost to more prestigious schools.

Board of Regents Chairman Allen L. Schwait said he is interested in the idea, raised by University President John S. Toll at a board meeting last month, because university officials are worried that many of Maryland's best students are opting to go to school elsewhere. Schwait said he saw "a need to keep honor students and other gifted students in the state. Every time we lose a student like that we lose a great resource. We ought to be doing as much as we can with education in Maryland to keep those kinds of students here."

The proposal was applauded by some area parents, who said it would provide a good opportunity to send their children to school close to home and at a lower, in-state cost, and by students already in an honors program at College Park who said it would increase the prestige associated with the program.

Local educators noted it could be an inducement, but some still expressed doubts that the program will change the minds of many students. "A lot of it is perception," said Robert Carey, head of the guidance department at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, in explaining how the change could attract more top students. Still, he said, "in this area, the parents say, 'We've got to talk Stanford. We've got to talk Princeton.' "

Toll said the concept of the "honors college," which will be the focus of a faculty-committee study this spring, is part of a larger plan to upgrade the university's image. "In every field we're endeavoring to establish a faculty whose scholarly excellence is among the best in the country," he said.

The proposal, if implemented, would go beyond the existing honors program, Toll said, because it "provides for the best students a program as challenging as they can get at the best universities in the country."

While the details and timing of the plan have yet to be worked out, students at the "honors college" would probably apply separately for admission to that program, would be eligible for dorm rooms in a separate honors building, and would enroll in special honors courses, seminars and research projects in addition to taking regular courses.

Under the university's current "general honors" program, the 1,100 students take about one-fourth of their course work in special "honors seminars" or in "honors" versions of basic courses. They are selected by university officials who review their high school records, college admission tests and extracurricular activities.

The "honors college" would merge the general honors program with the approximately 30 honors programs in various academic departments, said John L. Howarth, a physics professor who directs the general honors program.

Students would probably continue to take most of their course work from the regular offerings. "I'm not in favor of a completely isolated honors college a half-mile down the road," Howarth said.

Schwait said the university had been trying to "give our honors and our better students more incentive to stay within the state." He cited a "dramatic increase" in the number of merit finalists enrolled, up from just six at the College Park campus in 1977-78 to 84 this academic year.

"One of the reasons we thought about it is that so many people have the mistaken impression that the University of Maryland does not attract the very best students, but we do," said Slaughter. The idea of the "honors college," he said, is "to make people more aware of the fact that we really do have a very high-quality educational program at Maryland."

The average SAT score for entering freshmen at the College Park campus was 992 last year, up from 970 in 1981, while the average score of students admitted to the honors program was 1,260. The average SAT for students at the University of Virginia is 1,200.

Students in the honors program were enthusiastic about the idea of the honors college. "I think that would be great," said Tali Grodzinsky, a senior government and politics major from Pikesville, Md.

"It would give more recognition to what we're doing," she said. "Just changing the name to an honors college would makes it seem bigger and more important. It would make more people willing to apply to it and participate in it."

But Becky Buehler, a senior history major from Bethesda, expressed fear that an honors college would alienate honors students from university life. "Maryland is concerned about developing a sense of community here on campus, and that might even make things worse," she said.

Guidance counselors at local high schools praised the existing honors program at the University of Maryland and expressed interest in the prospect of a separate honors college. But some said they doubted it would draw the very top students away from more prestigious colleges and universities.

"The very cream of the crop is going to want to go away, and they usually do," said Bonnie Jenkins, a guidance counselor at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt, a science and technology "magnet" school for Prince George's County.

As to the honors college, she said, "I'm not sure how strong a drawing point it would be any more than the honors program already is."

While applications to the honors program disappear quickly from the guidance office, Jenkins said, only a "sprinkle" of students in the top 10 percent of the class actually enroll.

Of seven merit finalists Jenkins is counseling this year, she said, only one is applying to the University of Maryland. The others, she said, are applying to Ivy League schools or private colleges such as Williams College in Williamstown, Mass.

"If they're aiming to keep most of the top graduates in state, they're not going to do it as far as this community is concerned," said John Keating, head of the guidance department at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda. "Even though the state university might present a very worthwhile program, still they have their sights set on certain prestige colleges, and if they can make it in and swing it financially they're going."

"Where I see Maryland drawing serious attention from top kids is where they have an established, high-quality program in something like engineering or computer science," Keating said.

"If they would say they were going to an honors college it would sound better to them than saying they're going to Maryland but to the honors program," said John Hall, a guidance counselor at Northwestern High School, where perhaps three or four students in the top 10 percent of the 550-student class enroll in the honors program. "It would give it more prestige and make it more competitive."

Three students in the top 10 percent of the class last year at Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville enrolled in the honors program, including one of the school's valedictorians. Montgomery Blair's Carey said only one of three merit finalists at the school is considering attending Maryland. Another student, he said, will enroll at Johns Hopkins University, and the third at Stanford.

Jean Rosenberg, president of the Prince George's County Association of Talented and Gifted Students, echoed some of the views of the guidance counselors. "I would think that an honors college with small classes and very highly qualified professors with a full priority on excellence would be a wonderful idea for the University of Maryland," said Rosenberg, whose daughter attends Wellesley, and whose son is at Eleanor Roosevelt. Still, she said, "We will be spending vast fortunes sending our kids to private schools."

But May Huang, a Bowie resident whose daughter opted for Duke University over the University of Maryland and whose son, a senior at Eleanor Roosevelt, has applied to Duke, Johns Hopkins, Yale, and Harvard, said she was attracted by the idea of an honors college and the prospect of saving on tuition bills.

"It's close to home, too," she said.