The leaders of four private colleges in Washington were among 27 presidents nationally who were paid at least $500,000 last year, according to a new survey that highlights bidding wars and escalating pay at the highest levels of higher education.

Howard University's H. Patrick Swygert, Gallaudet University's I. King Jordan and George Washington University's Stephen J. Trachtenberg joined the half-million-dollar club, whose membership more than doubled from the 12 presidents who topped the Chronicle of Higher Education's private college survey for 1999-2000. American University's Benjamin Ladner made the list for the second year in a row.

Yet the chronicle's latest list included a flurry of asterisks -- representing bonuses, severance packages and other one-time payouts -- that blurred the dividing line between big earners and really big earners.

Such was the case with Swygert. He was ninth on the survey's list of best-paid presidents last year, seemingly a landmark for the historically black university, which recently emerged from years of financial instability.

But Swygert's total compensation package of $603,031 included four years' worth of deferred retirement benefits renegotiated in his 1999 contract extension -- money he will not receive until he leaves Howard. By law, the benefits had to be reported as part of his one-year compensation on tax documents reviewed by the chronicle.

Swygert's actual salary in 2000-01 was $357,000, according to Howard officials, just above the median for presidents of major research universities. In next year's survey, he will probably sink to the middle of the pack, the officials said.

Other salaries on the list are no illusion.

At Gallaudet, Jordan received a 50 percent pay raise in 2000-01, lifting his salary from $305,821 to $460,893. Including benefits, his total compensation was $513,368, the survey found, making him the highest-paid president of a so-called master's institution in the nation.

Mercy Coogan, a spokeswoman for Gallaudet, said school trustees approved Jordan's raise in recognition of the "phenomenal job" he has done leading the nation's premier institution for the hearing-impaired.

"The bottom line is that they base it on his performance," she said. But Coogan said the trustees also wanted to make sure that Jordan, the longest-serving president in the Washington area, was compensated on par with his local peers.

Among them: American's Ladner, who received $589,243 last year, the survey found, and George Washington's Trachtenberg, who received $501,038 in salary and benefits after several years of steady pay raises.

Georgetown University President Leo J. O'Donovan received $468,000 in his final year before retiring last year, and Johns Hopkins University President William R. Brody was fourth on the nationwide list, receiving $677,564.

An increasing rush among universities to keep their presidential salaries on par with competitors troubles some critics.

"It's every board believing they need to do the same thing: 'We must be a great board because we have a great president, and he must be a great president because, see how much he's making?' " said Patrick M. Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Meanwhile, Callan noted, faculty pay has stalled while tuition rises at many schools.

Others, though, say that there is a shortage of leaders up to the task of running major institutions and that the salaries simply reflect the market demand.

"These are 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week jobs, and in many ways the individuals involved are under-compensated for the enormity of the task they're undertaking," which today includes raising money and promoting a school's reputation, said Sheldon E. Steinbach, vice president of the American Council on Education.

Such pressures have filtered over to public institutions. Mark G. Yudof, chancellor of the University of Texas System, will receive $787,319 this fiscal year. William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, is the seventh-highest-compensated public university leader, with a package of $475,000. The Chronicle of Higher Education released its salary list of public college presidents in August.

According to the chronicle's private college survey, University of Pennsylvania President Judith Rodin topped the list at $808,021. The highest total compensation went to Connecticut College's Claire L. Gaudiani, though most of her $898,410 came in a severance package.

The other Washington area presidents on the survey include Catholic University's David M. O'Connell, $211,052; Southeastern University's Charlene Drew Jarvis, $147,000; and Trinity College's Patricia A. McGuire, $149,625.

Christopher B. Nelson, president of St. John's College in Annapolis, received $186,084, the survey found. The former president of Marymount University, Sister Eymard Gallagher, received $213,187 in her last year, and Hood College paid its interim president, Robert Funk, $150,000.

Gallaudet University's I. King Jordan last year received total compensation of $513,368.