Los Angeles — Liberal arts studies - historically the heart of a college education - have taken their turn in the School of Hard Knocks in recent years. General education programs, say academic experts, have been buffeted on many of the nation's approximately 3,000 college and university campuses. Hard-pressed by shrinking budgets on the one hand, many liberal arts programs also face stiff competition for the hearts and minds of students from information-age studies like computer science and from the job-market lure of MBAs and other professional degrees.
Even as the move toward ''vocationali-zation'' and ''professionalization'' in college learning continues, however, observers note a still-developing - yet widespread - countertrend on campuses today: a shift, among academic institutions of all kinds, toward rethinking and strengthening liberal arts programs.
''New general education programs, as well as additional requirements in liberal arts for students, are springing up like Topsy,'' says Arthur Levine, who co-authored an essay published last year on general education for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.
Although the predicted decline in campus enrollments and concurrent student concerns over job opportunities have prompted many schools to offer baccalaureate degrees in such vocational areas as mortuary science and automotive technology, other colleges and universities - from Harvard University to Colorado School of Mines - have risen to the occasion with vigorous debates on the purpose of education and a renewed commitment to the liberal arts.
''On the one hand, colleges are galloping ahead, grabbing marketable programs and forging links with industry . . . asking, 'How can we sell ourselves?' '' said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and co-author, with Dr. Levine, of ''A Quest for Common Learning.''
''At the same time,'' Dr. Boyer added, ''there's a backlash among educators who are asking, 'Is this all we are, simply an extension of the marketplace?' A college education is supposed to help bring meaning to students' lives.''
Harvard is widely credited with triggering the current nationwide rethinking of the value of liberal arts learning. In 1978, after a three-year planning period, university officials announced a new core curriculum which reflected its first general education shift since the 1960s and which set more demanding standards in the humanities, communication skills, math, and foreign languages.
According to an April 1982 general education survey by the Association of American Colleges (AAC), it is difficult to know how many schools are involved in this ''national revival of general education,'' but the movement does include ''colleges of every type and in all parts of the country.'' Different campuses have responded in different ways - some simply adding new liberal arts requirements, others overhauling entire programs.
One of the most recent - and one of the most substantial - responses has been made at the University of California at Los Angeles, where university officials have dramatically altered the administration structure of the College of Letters and Science.
For the first time in UCLA history, a provost, who has the power of a vice-chancellor, has been appointed to head the liberal arts college. In addition, the associate deans of the school's five divisions have been elevated to the rank of full deans - making the head of the humanities division, for example, equal in footing to the deans of UCLA's law or medical schools.
Besides providing an obvious morale boost to the College of Letters and Science, explains Provost Raymond L. Orbach, the move strengthens the university's liberal arts school by bringing greater fund-raising and administrative flexibility to its deans.
Although much of the current re-emphasis on the value of liberal arts learning is counted as a response toward the professional push in education, Dr. Boyer says the new trend also reflects historical cycles.
''Campuses tend to return to basic values when there is a sense of anxiousness about the disintegration of a sense of community and purpose on a larger social scale,'' he said, noting similar periods following World Wars I and II. ''There's a feeling that the world view is such that universities must again claim a larger purpose and contribute to values that seem threatened.''
At the same time, however, educators are not ignoring the concerns of students who worry that a liberals art degree may be meaningless in the job market. The AAC, which promotes liberal arts education, has just launched a $100 ,000 year-long public information campaign called ''Get a liberal education . . . it's the course for life.'' Targeted at high school students, the program's aim is to show that the communication and reasoning skills developed in liberal arts studies help prepare a student for any career.
In addition, many colleges and universities, including UCLA, have launched new ''business components'' as part of their liberal arts offerings. At Bradford College, a small liberal arts college in Bradford, Mass., for example, faculty members recently endorsed a new liberal arts program that includes clusters of general education courses designed around specific business topics like management and computers.
In addition, students must participate in intern programs and take courses both on historical theories of work and current business dilemmas.
''We've decided we won't be an ivory tower because the test of a liberal arts education is its utility,'' said Dr. Levine, who is now president of Bradford College. ''We also won't be a vocational institution, because that's training rather than education.
''We're going to chart our course somewhere in between,'' he said. ''We will [prepare] students for a life in which change is the norm.''