Women's colleges have suffered "considerable neglect . . . a kind of negative policy" from the government over the years, Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Patricia Harris said yesterday.

Harris told 60 women's college presidents that they can expect to see changes under her administration. "Too often, we may have been part of the problems your institutions have had to face," she said. "There has been a lamentable absence of attention."

The presidents, representing just under half the 125 women's colleges in the country, met with Harris under the sponsorship of the Women's College Coalition for a day of panel discussions on common problems.

The coalition, according to associate director Ann Smith, had asked for a complaint session with then-HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano Jr., who had agreed immediately. He then assessed the department's relations with women's colleges and found, Smith said, that many of the complaints were justified.

When Califano left HEW, Harris picked up the issue. "I learned to my dismay that the dozens of advisory committees to this department . . . have all too seldom included representatives of the women's colleges," she said. "I think we can do better than that." The advisory committees provide information and advice on educational and other issues.

Harris also promised to step up the flow of information to women's colleges on programs, grants and other forms of government service for which they are eligible. She assigned a special assistant to be liaison with them.

"We're tremendously pleased to have opened channels of communication," said Women's College Coalition chairman Rhoda M. Dorsey, president of Goucher College in Towson, Md.

"The most important thing was that we will now talk before policies are devised. It's called getting your oar in early," she said.

She said that enrollment is increasing in women's colleges, unlike many larger institutions of higher learning. Freshman enrollment rose 3.4 percent this year and the total number of students nationwide is 109,000.

Harris noted that the figure was a tiny percentage of the four million U.S. college enrollment, but added that studies had found that women at such schools were most likely to become involved in student government, to persist to graduation and to attain positions of leadership after college than were women in coeducational schools.