Hundreds of parents and their high school-age children went shopping at Landover Mall yesterday, in search not of bargains but a good college education.

During the weekend, the mall was the setting for a college fair attended by representatives of 35 historically black institutions of higher learning. At tables filled with glossy catalogues and staffed by proud alumni, families dressed in their Sunday finery compared prices, sizes and quality, looking for a perfect fit.

The fair was sponsored by the Black Collegiate Exchange, a nonprofit organization formed last year by Washington resident Jack Estes. In addition to acting as a clearinghouse for information about black colleges and universities, the organization is trying to promote the schools through marketing and sales of college apparel.

Estes, a telemarketing specialist for Metro, said his home-based enterprise has two purposes: to make it easier for black teenagers to pursue higher education and to support mainly black schools, which often do not have the large endowments that aid predominantly white institutions.

"I want to give something back," said Estes, a 1974 graduate of Southern University. "We know children are being murdered every day. By doing this, if I can get just two or three going to college and as a result they are saved, that's great."

Ninety of the nation's approximately 115 historically black colleges and universities had been scheduled to send recruiters to Landover for the event, but a large number canceled at the last minute, citing recession-reduced travel budgets, Estes said.

Those college representatives who did attend were sought out eagerly by area families. Most of the 35 schools ran out of brochures and financial aid applications on Saturday and had to ask prospective candidates yesterday to leave their names and addresses instead.

By day's end, representatives from Hampton University had gotten requests from nearly 500 students who wanted to know more about the Virginia school -- which, along with Tuskegee University, Spelman College, Morehouse College, Florida A&M University and North Carolina A&T State University, seemed to be among the most popular choices.

"Having gone to a black college myself, there is a kind of community education you can get from a black college that I feel is very necessary," said Earline Oakes, a Prince George's County middle school teacher who, despite a case of viral pneumonia, came to the fair with her daughter, Sheli. "If we want to conquer what is wrong with us, we have to do it ourselves."

Donnell Owens, 18, a senior at Eastern High School in the District and a member of its marching band, said he was interested in Florida A&M, in part because the university's band is renowned for its distinctive style.

While browsing at the school's table yesterday, Owens also inquired about its engineering program and was pleased to learn that he has a high enough grade point average to be accepted. "I've got everything I need to go on to college," he said with a modest grin.

Also attending the fair were several high school sophomores and juniors who said they were hoping to get a jump start on their planning for college. Leslie Stewart, 16, a sophomore at Wakefield High School in Arlington, was there with her mother, Maria, to find out about majoring in art. Sean Holland, 16, a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School in the District, came alone to find out about football scholarships at North Carolina A&T.

"I've been planning for this since ninth grade," said Shawn Holland, 16, a junior at Eastern High who wants to pursue a career in veterinary medicine, possibly at Tuskegee. "I always like to look forward to college. I think it will be fun, but the thing I want is the degree so I can start a career."