Amid plain, utilitarian buildings and heavily traveled streets, the Foggy Bottom campus of George Washington University has two unlikely monuments to federal regulation -- two new elevators that cost $1.3 million.

The elevators, equipped with wide doors and raised Braille panels, are set between two pairs of adjacent four-story classroom buildings. For decades the buildings functioned with just stairs or small elevators. Now, as federal rules require, the structures are fully accessible to students in wheelchairs.

How many of the 17,613 students at George Washington are confined to wheelchairs? Seven that they know about, university officials say, plus 15 others who walk with braces, crutches or canes. GW also has nine students who are blind or partially blind.

"It's not just the numbers that matter," said Linda Donnels, the university's director of services for disabled students. "It's a matter of principle and legal requirements."

The rules on handicapped students are only a small part of a long catalogue of federal regulations that have profoundly affected George Washington and most other American universities over the past decade.

According to one recent compliation, more than 90 federal laws and regulations have a major impact on colleges and universitite. So do an increasing welter of state and local rules. As the regulations have proliferated, so has concern among professors and university administrators that the regulatory burden has inevitably reduced their independence and impeded the most important role of colleges and universities: offering quality education.

"Every corner, nook and cranny of the institution has been affected by federal regulations," said Lloyd Elliott, the president of George Washington University. "Most of their goals are defensible, but on net they have hurt the universities. The amount of time and resources they consumer have detracted immensely from our primary goals, which are teaching and research. . . . The red tape is strangling."

For George Washington University, and most other colleges across the country, the requirements include affirmative action programs with goals and timetables for hiring minorities and women, other rules for hiring Vietnam veterans and the handicapped, and a law that goes into effect next year barring forced retirements before age 70 -- which should make the myriad of hiring goals harder to achieve.

Other regulations restrict turning over students' grades to parents, require purchases from small businesses and minority-owned firms, and establish elaborate reporting procedures for federal grants and detailed reviews for medical and social science research on human subjects.

With a broad range of undergraduate courses, a medical school, and extensive research programs, George Washington offers a good case study of the impact of federal rules on higher education. Elliott's criticisms are typical of complaints from many academics, including Harvard president Derek Bok, who warned last year that "government can easily clasp education in a deadly embrace that stifles its creativity and vigor."

Many of the complaints are also similar to those voiced by businessmen, are indeed many of the laws and regulations now applied to universities were originally drawn up with business in mind.

The complaints have received a sympathetic response from President Reagan. He campaigned ardently against government regulation last fall and has appointed a high-level task force on deregulation headed by Vice President Bush. Last week Bush said his group would review and probably recommend changes in 27 major federal regulations, including many that affect universities.

In a recent speech, Education Secretary Terrell Bell declared that one of his main goals is to "reduce and reverse the tide of federal regulation and control." The rules and required reports, he said, "threaten to strangle our nation's higher educational institutions."

But scrapping the regulations may prove difficult. Many have strong support from the groups they benefit, such as blacks, women and the handicapped, who say regulations are necessary to overcome past discrimination and may seek court orders to replace any regulations that are dropped. Also, many regulations stem from broadly phrased laws. Changes will probably require congressional action, not just new administrative rules.

"Sure, there are some excesses in federal regulation," said Samuel Halperin, director of the Institute for Educational Leadership at George Washington. "But it's not just make-work and bureaucratic silliness. It's done to protect vulnerable groups . . . Real progress has been made in higher education because of these laws. I don't think the groups that made these social gains can be put back into the bottle and corked up again.

Halperin, who served in a subcabinet post in the Johnson administration, noted that many of the regulations came during a time of major increases in federal funds for universities. The Reagan administration, he said, wants to cut back sharply on federal aid while it deregulates. "I don't think that's a good trade for the universities," Halperin said. "They need more public money, not less. I don't think the cost of regulation is so enormous."

"Would we welcome more money with more regulations?" Elliott retorted. "No, I think the price is too high, and I don't think it has to follow."

In England, he said, major government support has been given to higher education for decades through an independent grants commission that has protected university autonomy."It's one thing for the government to make sure that its money is used for the purposes it's been given," Elliott said. "We should be accountable. But it's wrong to add a lot of requirements that weaken the university itself."

Marianne R. Phelps, GW's assistant provost for affirmative action, said it is difficult to see what many of the regulations have done to achieve their avowed purposes. "There were social changes taking place that made those laws possible," she said. "It's very hard to say that we wouldn't have reached the point we're at now without all the regulations. We're committed ourselves not to discriminate."

In other cases, several GW officials noted, the regulations have required major expenses from which very few have benefited -- such as the $1.6 million spent so far on architectural changes to accommodate wheelchairs -- while spending that may have helped more students, such as buying books for the library, was curtailed. One requirement -- for parity in men's and women's sports -- caused a major increase in GW's overall budget for athletics, which traditionally had not been a high priority.

With most federal regulations the main incentive for carrying them out is money: the penalty for noncompliance is the cutoff of federal funds. This has rarely happened, but with only a handful of exceptions the threat has been enough to produce the desired reports -- because universities have become increasingly dependent on federal funds.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the federal government is expected to contribute directly about $9.1 billion of the $65 billion spent on higher education this year, and to guarantee student loans of $5 million more. At George Washington the government is expected to finance about a quarter of the current $210 million budget. About half of GW's students are receiving federal aid, mostly guaranteed loans.

The affirmative action regulations, which GW officials say have had a broader effect than any other federal rules stem from an executive order issued by President Johnson in 1965 and elaborate on several times by the Labor Department. The rules require federal contractors, including both businesses and universities with contracts of $50,000 or more, to set "specific goals and timetables" to remedy any "deficiencies" in the hiring of minorities and women.

The deficiencies are supposed to be calculated by determining the proportion of different minority groups and women available in different job categories, then comparing it with the proportion employed by the contractor.

Since it recruits faculty from throughout the country, GW has prepared thick elaborate reports showing to the tenth of a percent the proportion nationwide of black radiologists or Asian statisticians or female physicists. From this information it has calculated the "underutilization" of each group in each of its departments and set specific goals of who should be hired.

For example, in its current affirmative action plan, the goals for 1984 include one woman, one black and one Asian in obstetrics and gynecology; one black, one Asian and one Hispanic in psychiatry; three women in art, and one woman and one Asian in statistics.

All the plans are subject to approval by the office of federal contract compliance of the Labor Department, which has no set schedule for visiting any particular contractor though the plans are supposed to be ready whenever they want to inspect them.

Phelps said one of the main problems in preparing the plans is that much of the data they require "simply doesn't exist."

"So we use some creative data management," Phelps said, "and come up with something. Or we just ask the inspectors. 'What figure will you accept?'"

To make sure the plan is carried out, Phelps said, each job vacancy must be widely advertised and special efforts must be made to reach women, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, American Indians and disabled persons.

Phelps said that, despite the sex and race goals, the final decision on whom to hire is to be made on merit. But for all members of the designated groups who do not get a job, detailed records must be kept on their qualifications and reasons for rejection.

Most deans and professors involved in hiring said that although the requirements of affirmative action were time-consuming, it had considerably broadened the search for applicants while section was made completely on merit. However, several who made this point in interviews then expressed misgivings on condition that their names not be used.

"Well all say affirmative action lets us hire the 'best-qualified' candidates," one professor said. "But everybody has in the back of his mind the various quotas and numbers we have to reach. We had a woman leaving, and we knew they'd be less than happy if we got a man to replace her. So we chose a woman. Was she the best? I'm not so sure. But if we didn't take her there'd have to be a lot of explaining."

One clear effect of the requirements is to make women and minorities much sought after in fields where few of them have advanced degrees.As a result, Elliott said, some whom GW tried to hire or briefly employed were attracted by other universities that paid them higher salaries.

Since 1974, the number of women on GW's full-time faculty has increased from 130 to 170, Asians from 25 to 47, blacks from just 7 to 9, Hispanics from 7 to 8, and whites from 730 to 763. Both the strong supporters and strong critics of affirmative action believe that the rules have played a significant role -- for good or ill -- in increasing the number of minorities and women. Others, including Phelps, are unsure. "I think it's mostly a matter of who's really available and qualified," she said. "The number of women and Asians (with PhD degrees) is going up fast, but there still aren't very many blacks."

Regardless of what affirmative action may have accomplished, it has attracted some criticism because of its costs -- for Phelps and her full-time staff of five and also for the time of other administrators.

Extra costs have been the main reason for criticism of the rules for handicapped students and women's athletics. For example, the budget for women's sports this year is $483,100 (compared with $728,500 for men's sports, which have about 55 percent more varsity athletes). The cost of sign-language interpreters for the 12 deaf students who used them was $7,600 last year.

The rules for using some government contract money to buy from small businesses also have added to costs. But the biggest increases have probably been in GW's legal bills. These now are approaching $500,000 a year, said vice president Charles Diehl, most of it for lawyers' time in coping with regulations. A decade ago, Diehl said, lawyers cost GW just $50,000.

Another area of concern has been the effect of regulation on research. One new directive greatly increases the reporting that researchers must do on how they spend their time -- on nongovernment work as well as on what the government finances. For several years, research on human subjects has been governed by highly detailed federal rules.

"It's all exceedingly time-consuming. . . .," said Dr. L. Thompson Bowles, dean of the GW Medical School. "It discourages some important research. But what can we do? We have to go along with it."