THE EVENING NEWS on Labor Day carried the story of the annual return to college. The cameras focused on students moving into dormitories and talking about the joys and travails that lie ahead. A couple of hours later, the television screen was providing another view of college. Texas and Arkansas were playing the first collegiate football game of the year.

The juxtaposition was striking. The students in the dorms, and their parents, seemed to be concerned most about money. The cost of a year at college has become a big-ticket item -- up to $10,000 in the Ivy League. The thought of financing four such years weighs heavily on students and their families. But for the hundred or so healthy young men cavorting on that gridiron in Texas, there were few such worries. Their thoughts were of running and passing, blocking and tackling; the proper performance of those athletic moves pays their college bills.

For thousands of college football players, the trade-off -- four years of athletic performance for four years of education -- is a bargain. For others, it is a farce. Jeff Birren, the academic counselor who took the rap at Southern California for the lastest athletic scandal, recently told The New York Times, "Look, college exploits these guys, rips them off. It makes a million dollars off them and pays them very little. A few play pro football, but most of them have bad knees at 50, and no degree."

True, big-time football like that played at Texas and Arkansas pays the bills for other athletic programs. The money it brings in funds scholarships made available to hundreds of other athletes in less popular sports. Football may be "the single most unifying activity at any college," as the new president of USC said the other day. But something, nevertheless, is awry.

A university, a college, is those students in the dorms, worrying about getting an education and paying for it. It is their teachers pondering how best to implant knowledge -- and the love of seeking knowledge. It is not those young men fretting about how to improve their tackling and blocking. Yet in the weeks ahead, a visitor from afar would be hard put to make that distinction. The golden egg that football and television presented to the universities has grown so large, it has almost blotted out the real purpose of higher education.