Want to see a collective shudder? Ask minority achievers what they would have done if they had not obtained a college education.

Education hits all of us where we live -- in our hopes and dreams for our children. That's why there's a giant new worry sweeping the land. Blacks and other minorities, always underrepresented in our nation's universities, now find their numbers actually declining on campus. The most dramatic drop has been at the graduate school level.

*Item: Late last spring, Jocelyn Hart, assistant dean of the Cornell University Graduate School in Ithaca, N.Y., made an alarming discovery. Cornell would not have a single black student among the hundreds admitted to the graduate physical science programs for the fall term.

*Item: Recently, Elaine J. Copeland, a graduate school dean at the University of Illinois, realized with a shock that black enrollment in the university's graduate programs had dropped almost 40 percent between 1974 and 1985.

*Item: Betty Hill considered taking a job after receiving a bachelor's degree in biochemistry from Mississippi State University in 1982. She knew she couldn't afford the annual tuition and living expenses of $15,000 at Pittsburgh's Carnegie-Mellon University. Had she not received financial help to attend graduate school, Carnegie-Mellon would not have a single black biochemistry graduate student today.

Although minorities are 20 percent of the nation's population, they received only 10.9 percent of all doctorates awarded in 1983. Blacks, who are 12.1 percent of the population, earned only 4 percent of doctoral degrees in that year; moreover, minority doctorates decreased 10 percent in the sciences.

One reason that fewer minorities are getting an education today is money. Black and Hispanic families, at the lowest end of the economic ladder, are least able to afford steadily increasing college tuitions, and federal student aid is declining.

In addition, fewer high school graduates are attending four-year colleges, and of those who are, many turn their backs on graduate education. Moreover, minorities are dropping out of the nation's high schools at an alarming rate.

Educators such as Copeland and Hart say not only will the already small black and minority faculty hiring pool shrink further, reducing role models for minority students, but the intellectual health of the entire university community will suffer.

No longer is this just a social or equal-opportunity problem. A higher percentage of the white population than of minorities is approaching elderly years, so the minority population probably will have to supply more of the nation's future scientists, engineers and other professionals. The country will face a severe shortage of trained manpower in coming years if minorities fail to get college-level educations.

This problem is of such alarming proportions that the Association of American Universities has asked Congress to authorize aid to identify and recruit minorities in high schools and colleges, and encourage them to stay in school and pursue graduate study. The House Education and Labor Committee approved that program as well as an amendment sponsored by Rep. Major R. Owens (D.-N.Y.) to establish the Patricia Roberts Harris Fellowship program, with $15 million in funding, for minority graduate education.

Meanwhile, minority students, educators and parents must get on the case themselves -- for themselves. Too many minority students arrive at college poorly prepared. Understaffing and underfinancing in the public schools are partly to blame. But the schools need the help of parents and community members to ensure that youngsters go to school, do their homework and read voraciously if this generation is to get an education and achieve in the manner of its elders.