Salaries for the presidents of top private colleges and universities are pushing into the mid six figures, with a couple surpassing the half-million dollar mark, according to a survey released this week by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

That kind of pay is rare, however. It's for those who run complex, prestigious schools. Even then, experts say, it's still well below comparable salaries in the corporate world.

Take William Brody, president of Johns Hopkins University, paid $446,419 in 1997-98, according to the survey. The well-known Baltimore school, with 17,000 students, includes more than a university, said spokesman Dennis O'Shea. Brody runs "the largest university-based research program, a medical system that includes three hospitals and oversees a $2.5 billion-a-year enterprise," O'Shea said.

The Chronicle, a weekly newspaper that covers post-secondary education, examined the 1997-98 tax returns of 475 colleges and universities. Because they are nonprofit organizations, their returns are available to the public.

The highest earners deserve it, trustees said.

Defending the $528,000 paid to New York University President L. Jay Oliva, board Chairman Martin Lipton in a statement praised him as "principal architect of the transformation of NYU," elevating the school of 37,000 students in Greenwich Village from a regional university to a national research institution. Oliva's salary is his reward for tripling admissions, enabling NYU to be choosier, more than doubling fund-raising and nearly doubling its housing, Lipton said in response to questions about the Chronicle report.

Other top earners included Judith Rodin, president of the University of Pennsylvania, $529,677; Joe Wyatt, at Vanderbilt University, $472,000; and George Rupp, at Columbia University, $452,500.

"They're bargain prices," said Judith Fischer, who runs Executive Compensation Advisory Services in Northern Virginia, which tracks and advises corporate boards on executive pay. "It's a very important function and they should be paid on the same level we're expecting now from publicly traded companies, for performance."

In fact, pay for most college presidents surveyed was far from stratospheric.

Median pay for presidents the Chronicle surveyed was $175,389, an increase of about 4 percent from the year before. At research institutions, the median was $380,701, an 8.3 percent rise.

Yet at universities granting doctorates, median presidential pay was $200,420--a 3.4 percent drop. At schools offering a master's as their top degree, the median was $155,972, up 7.5 percent. Median pay for presidents whose schools offer only bachelor's degrees was $179,389, less than 1 percent more than the year before.

Salaries even in the area of $300,000 are unusual, but reasonable given the market, said Kirk Beyer, director of human resources at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota.

"We've seen a 4.4 percent increase on average in the pay of [higher education] executives over the last five years," said Beyer, who chairs a committee that tracks salaries for the College and University Personnel Association.

"If you take a look at what's been happening in the private-sector salaries . . . that's comparable," Beyer said.

Beyer noted that when the economy slows, pay for college administrators tends to lag behind inflation, so in boom times, it evens out.

Those who run public institutions don't do quite as well as others. The median salary for chief executives at public institutions in 1997-98, the year of the Chronicle survey, was $118,798, Beyer's organization said.

Using tax returns to gauge pay at nonprofits can be misleading. Income from seats on corporate boards, public speaking and other extras is not reflected. College presidents also often get major perks such as a residence.

The top figure in the Chronicle report was for Howard Burnett, the now-retired president of Washington and Jefferson College, a liberal arts school with 1,245 students in Washington, Pa. In 1997-98 the school reported paying him $1,052,673. But that included two years' pay and deferred compensation--a severance package for 28 years' service.

Burnett's successor, Brian Mitchell, receives $160,000.

And that's plenty, said Mitchell, 46, an immigration and labor historian in his first college presidency. "I'm justly compensated for the work I do, and the complexity and diversity of the work," he said.