Those of us who have been worried about the growing materialism of young people have had our worst fears confirmed by the recent survey of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program.

That survey, sponsored by the American Council on Education and UCLA, found this year's college freshmen to be overwhelmingly interested in making a lot of money and concerned hardly at all about service to others.

But several college presidents, not content to be thermometers merely measuring the selfishness and apathy of their charges, have committed themselves to acting as thermostats, to change things.

These presidents, members of the Campus Compact: The Project for Public and Community Service, met here recently to issue a call for the promotion of public service "as a vital part of an undergraduate education."

They believe not only that young people can be led into increased public service but that they are not the money-grubbing materialists they are painted as being in the first place.

"The 'Me Generation' is over," said Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States and a member of the Campus Compact executive board. "College students are becoming more aware that they have a responsibility to the community. They are already responding to the urgent needs they see around them and becoming deeply involved in public service."

He cited as evidence a "dramatic" increase in the number of graduates earning degrees in social work -- a 15 percent increase since 1984.

How can such a conclusion be reconciled with the authoritative findings of the ACE/UCLA survey, which found commitment to service at a 20-year low?

The answer may be that students' attitudes are shaped in large measure by the people who run their schools. If that is so, then perhaps the presidents of the 120 colleges and universities who make up Campus Compact are seeing something different because their students are something different.

These presidents see college students tutoring illiterate adults, forming "mentor" relationships with disadvantaged children, building shelters for the homeless and engaging in any number of public service projects that manage somehow to escape public and media attention.

They believe youthful idealism still exists -- at least potentially -- and needs only to be encouraged and channeled. To that end, they issued a call for their counterparts across America to:

Build a campus environment in which the service ethic is an integral part of the undergraduate experience;

Work with federal, state and local government officials to establish programs that promote community service;

Join in such national efforts as adult literacy and programs for disadvantaged children;

Elicit the advice and support of faculty in order to make community service an ordinary part of campus life; and

Promote awareness of civic involvement on their campuses.

Cochairs of Campus Compact are Howard Swearer, president of Brown University, where the program is headquartered; Timothy Healy, president of Georgetown University; and Donald Kennedy, president of Stanford University.

Participants in the recent Washington meeting heard Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich make a pitch for an innovative At-Risk Mentoring program, through which he hopes to attract as many as a million students to tutor disadvantaged children. "The growing number of students failing to complete high school is alarming and poses a great danger to this country's economic, political and social system," he said.

Programs are already in place at such diverse institutions as Bronx Community College, the University of Pennsylvania, Berea (Ky.) College and several Texas institutions.

Campus Compact, a creature of the Education Commission of the States, is the best piece of campus news I have heard in a long time. Few will remember with much fondness the disruption, violence and student takeovers that wracked college campuses in the 1960s, but at least these headline-grabbing activities were evidence of student interest in the problems of the times. Recent years have seen little public evidence of student concern, aside from a flurry of anti-apartheid activity, and I had concluded that today's students are interested only in their own selfish goals.

To a considerable degree, I still believe it.

But the leaders of Campus Compact, to their great credit, are doing something about it. They have concluded that it's better to be a thermostat than to curse the thermometer.