Colleges are recruiting top-notch college professors in much the same way professional sports teams lure star athletes, the American Council on Education said yesterday.

Although little can compare with the salary and compensation offered to athletes, "star professors" are being wooed with promises of higher pay, better research opportunities, help with housing costs, reduced teaching loads and even jobs for spouses.

Such offers were unheard of only a few years ago, but the council's annual "state of the campus" report found that a shortage of qualified faculty members, which had been expected to begin in 1995, already is underway.

"So far, these very attractive recruiting packages are pretty much for star faculty, really highly qualified faculty who are going to help make the reputation of the department," said Elaine El-Khawas, the council's vice president for policy analysis and research who wrote this year's "Campus Trends, 1990."

The Association of American Universities said in a recent report the nation is expected to suffer an annual shortage of 7,500 natural science and engineering doctorates early in the next century. Shortages of doctorate degrees in the humanities and social sciences will occur even sooner, it said.

High-demand academic fields include math, science, computer science, engineering, business and health, El-Khawas said.

A common strategy is to offer new faculty members unusually high salaries that El-Khawas said could average $40,000 in high-demand fields. Although they differ with the institutions, salaries for new faculty members usually are in the mid-$30,000 range.

Existing shortages have worsened in the past year. The survey said 63 percent of the 364 institutions reported greater difficulty in getting top applicants to accept positions, while 65 percent reported it was taking longer to find qualified persons for job openings. Last year, only half the institutions had similar responses.