A House committee has approved legislation authorizing a 50 percent increase in federal aid to higher education, and yesterday a Senate subcommittee took up that and several competing bills.

Aid to higher education -- mostly loans and grants to students -- is now about $4.5 billion a year; at least one U.S. college student out of four now receives some federal assistance.

The Carter administration regards the House committee bill as too costly. Mary F. Berry, assistant secretary of health, education and welfare, testified yesterday that the administration has an alternative that would cost much less and should be the Senate's preference.

But the Rev. Timothy S. Healy, S.J., president of Georgetown University, told the Senate education subcommittee the higher-education establishment has rarely if ever been as united behind a proposal as it is behind the House bill.

The House Education and Labor Committee approved its version of the aid bill last week. The bill would extend and enlarge upon existing aid to higher-education programs, which expire next year.

The House committee bill -- and the leading versions pending in the Senate as well -- would authorize increased aid per student, for more students, under a new administrative structure.

The bills would also authorize extra money for renovation of decrepit buildings, for young and developing institutions and for college libraries.

The bills emphasize work-study and cooperative education programs and also put new emphasis on older, foreign and other nontraditional students that colleges must have if they are to survive in a period of declining numbers of new high school graduates. All versions would also tighten loan collection procedures.

As it does every four years, Congress is juggling the aid numbers in an attempt to please very different constituencies within higher education. The interests of college presidents do not always coincide with the interests of their teachers or those of students, and the controversy over who controls money has often been bitter.

This year, however, all 19 House education subcommittee members co-sponsored legislation that had been drawn up after 35 days of hearings involving 269 witnesses. Lengthy consultations and intricate compromises were forged among contending sides, and education subcommittee Chairman William D. Rode (D-Mich.) was able to bring the bill through the full committee with a unanimous voice vote on Sept. 26.

HEW Secretary Patricia Roberts Harris told Ford in a Sept. 19 letter that the measure would "significantly distort education budget priorities," and that student grant programs in particular were funded at a level that was "unacceptable."

HEW estimates that the House bill would more than double the current $3.1 billion in basic grants to college students. House defenders, however, say the rise may be less -- perhaps $1 billion.

The administration wants to keep the current provision that limits a basic grant to half the student's tuition, whatever the tuition is, with a ceiling of $1,800. Berry told the Senate subcommittee yesterday that to kill that provision "would be costly, would create other inequities and could have an inflationary effect on tuition."

The House measure, however, would raise the maximum grant to $2,700 in three stages over five years, and would allow a student eventually to get a grant covering 75 percent of tuition up to the maximum.

Higher-tuition colleges are most interested in increasing the grant ceiling, because the current $1,800 ceiling pinches them. Lower-tuition colleges are more interested in raising the percentage. The House committee bill is a compromise.

Another major controversy involves the degree to which the student loan program is to be reorganized. The Carter administration proposal would put most of the program under direct federal administration, reduce subsidies to schools and raise the loan interest rate from 3 percent to 7 percent. Colleges would be removed from the collection process in an effort to minimize defaulting.

The House version would hold the interest rate at 3 percent while tightening collection procedures elsewhere.Healy told the Senate subcommittee that existing programs, "while not perfect, have served the nation well," and urged that the reorganization be deferred for more study.