WE NOTICED with more than passing interest a recent article in this newspaper by Bart Barnes, which pointed out that public universities are beginning to award part of their scholarship money solely on the basis of academic promise. It is happening at the University of Maryland, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and many other universities and public colleges throughout the country. The era in which scholarships have been awarded almost exclusively to athletes and financially disadvantaged students seems to be coming to an end. And we, at least, do not mourn its passing.

This year, for almost the first time in 20 years, high school seniors with high college board scores and high standing in their classes are discovering that they can get part or full scholarships regardless of the financial status of their parents. These may not be scholarships to the schools of their choice; most private colleges and universities have not yet joined this competition to attract the best students. But they are not scholarships that will be rejected quickly, given the costs of a college education these days.

There is, of course, a certain amount of self-interest involved in the decisions to begin offering scholarships to the best students regardless of financial need. These are institutions that have substantially improved the quality of both their teaching and physical plants in the past two decades. They now need brilliant students to establish themselves as centers of academic excellence and to attract and retain the bestteachers.

But there is more to the trend than just the desire of certain schools to attract scholars. There was a time - not so long ago - when most scholarships at public institutions were awarded either on the basis of merit or political pull. That practice was swept away after World War II by the realization that too many able students were being denied a college education because they lacked financial support. The decision to focus financial aid on those students was a wise one and should not be forsaken now.

But the pendulum did swing too far.Colleges and universities, whose purpose is to foster brilliance as well as to provide education, were doing little to nurture the very best, unless the best also happened to be disadvantaged - or athletic. The current trend seems to us to be a simple recognition that financial incentives for academic achievement can have a place in the academic world without curtailing unduly the financial aid to those who need it to obtain an equal opportunity.

No doubt there will be criticism that this small nod toward academic brilliance is a step toward creating an educated "elite" and a squandering of public money on rich children. But as long as this country is going to operate, as it does, on the principle of financial rewards for superior job performances by adults, it can afford to spend a little money rewarding superior performances by true scholars. It has always struck us as a gross distortion in basic values that the best football player in a high school could get a free college education regardless of the wealth of his parents while the best student couldn't.