It was the beginning of the spring semester in a sociology course at the University of Maryland.

One by one, a student recalls, the students introduced themselves by name and major -- history, computer science, elementary education. The others listened politely until a dark-haired young man in a middle row announced that he was majoring in general studies. His classmates hooted.

Deserved or not, Maryland's general studies degree program, which allows students to take a broad range of subjects without settling on a specific major, is hounded by stereotypes. The easy way out, some say. College for the aimless. A joke major.

That perception of the program has been heightened by the disclosure that Maryland basketball star Len Bias, a general studies major and supposed graduating senior, was 21 credits short of a degree when he died of cocaine intoxication this summer.

Bias did not earn a single credit during the spring semester, failing three courses and dropping two.

Academic counselors to the men's basketball team have said that education is not the top priority for Maryland coach Lefty Driesell; sources also have said that Bias, who was interested in art and interior design, was upset that he was occasionally steered by coaches toward easier recreation courses.

The Bias case further fosters the notion that the 14-year-old general studies program is a haven for athletes whose minds are encouraged to function on the playing courts rather than in the classrooms.

But university officials say that of the 850 students currently enrolled in general studies, only 33 are varsity athletes.

Athletes are also enrolled in such departments as recreation, education, business administration and physics, they said.

Officials say that revisions to the program, made in February and effective this fall, have reduced the possibility that students might wander through their college careers taking random "gut" courses just to satisfy the 120 credit hours necessary for graduation.

And they say that the general studies program also has given gifted or innovative students willingness to work out ways to develop flexibility in choosing their courses.

Maryland, however, is the only one of seven universities in the Atlantic Coast Conference that offers a general degree program.

Education researchers estimate that 130 U.S. colleges and universities offer majors in general studies or liberal arts.

Although most are small private schools, the numbers also include such large institutions as the University of Michigan, Louisiana State University and the University of Arizona.

Among educators, the value of general studies is debatable.

Fashionable during the Vietnam era, the programs gradually lost appeal as colleges moved toward more specific study requirements in the late 1970s.

Critics contend that the general studies program leaves students rudderless, without specialized knowledge and ill-equipped for finding jobs.

"From time to time, a suggestion floats over from the athletic department or from an alumnus that it would be helpful in recruiting athletes if we offered a general studies degree," said Alexander Sedgewick, dean of the college of arts and sciences at the University of Virginia.

"We feel that sort of program isn't sufficiently rigorous for our students. For that reason, we are very much opposed to it, and we will always be opposed to it. Our students should meet certain requirements and picking a major is one of them."

"We don't have it, and the reason is, the quality control is suspect," said Samuel Williamson, provost at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"General studies students are not under any department or school. They are orphan kids, and they're treated haphazardly."

Supporters say general studies is ideal for the students who are interested in several subjects, or who plan to pursue courses of study not formally offered by universities, or who simply want to have control over the planning of their educations.

"The program is highly individualistic," said Sharon Rubin, assistant dean of undergraduate studies at Maryland who oversees general studies.

"We're very clear to our students -- garbage in, garbage out. We're saying, 'If you do not put anything into your program, it's not going to look like anything when you're finished with it.' "

Ilene Leflor, 29, is a general studies major scheduled to graduate from Maryland next spring. She is offended, she said, by the response she gets when she mentions her major.

"Nowadays, people say, 'Oh, you're in general studies. That's the Len Bias major,' " Leflor said recently. "Or else they say, 'Didn't you want to do anything real?' Or, 'Couldn't you decide?'

"I look at it this way: A girlfriend of mine majored in English, and she's working in an insurance company making $14,000 a year. Personally, I think it's better to have a broader-based background. My college degree's for me."

Leflor, an optician who enrolled in Maryland last fall to complete her bachelor's degree, is concentrating on courses in economics and sociology. She hopes to go to graduate school.

The revision of the general studies program, the first since it was begun in 1972, revolves around such "concentrations," which are planned and written by students and approved by advisers.

General studies, which students generally enter their junior year, does not have a separate faculty or slate of courses under any one school; students are free to pick from more than 2,000 of the 2,300 courses offered by the university.

In the past, this has meant that less motivated students loaded up on light courses such as "Recreation and Leisure," "Sex Roles" or "Rhythmic Activities."

With the revisions, students must now specify three concentrations of study -- two primary areas of at least 21 credits and a third area of at least 12 credits. Four graduate students work part-time as advisers.

"The students now understand that they have to do some planning in advance," Rubin said.

"They can't just do it semester by semester. They have to design their concentrations. This gives them a better feeling of satisfaction about what a general studies program means, and it also gives them something very specific to tell a potential employer or graduate school -- 'I have a degree in general studies with concentrations in consumer economics and whatever.' "

Concentrations already chosen by some of the general studies students for the fall semester include "Group Dynamics and the Child," "Education and the Family," "Social Networks," "Personal Development" and "Designing and Implementing Physical Fitness Programs." Most tend to deal with humanities and social sciences.

The program revisions were prompted, Rubin said, by concern about "students who seemed to be floating."

Joe Metz, an assistant dean who retired in March, put it more blunt, "A number of students wasted their degree. They'd take the minimal requirements and then the rest was a hodge-podge that didn't seem connected in any way. They'd take anything," he said.

Metz estimated that about 15 percent of the general studies students were in that category. Such attitudes are somewhat reflected in grades.

The average grade point average for undergraduates at Maryland is 2.68, based on fall 1985 figures. For general studies majors, the average GPA is 2.42. That compares with computer science, 2.78, history, 2.82, and English, 2.96.

Comparative graduation rates were not available. Rubin said about 15 percent of Maryland's general studies majors go on to graduate schools.

"There's no evidence general studies graduates have more difficulty getting into law school or med school or getting a job," said assistant dean Eugene Nissen of the University of Michigan, where general studies more closely resembles Maryland's old program without the concentrations. "Most employers ask one question, 'Do you have a bachelor's degree?' "

The changes in the Maryland program don't necessarily mean a student can no longer construct a relatively easy course load.

"A student who is not a very strong student will learn very quickly from people around campus which courses are not particularly rigorous, and they'll go for those," Rubin said. "But this happens in more traditional majors, too. There are students who are sneaking through the holes in a lot of different ways."

As for general studies major Bias, "I'm not sure it would have made one whit of difference what that student was majoring in," Rubin said.