Atlanta — Kevin Zellner, dressed in polo shirt, shorts, and cracked and torn tennis shoes, paused between meetings here of college student leaders to explain what campus activists have on their agenda this fall. Street marches on global issues are out, for the most part; quieter negotiation on problems of more personal concern are in.
The two top issues at his campus, he said, are tuition costs and financial aid. But as president of the student government association at the University of Wisconsin campus in Whitewater, he says he will also be trying to get a greater student representation on university administrative committees that develop curriculum.
In striking contrast to the often tense years of the 1960s, when college students plunged into voter registration drives in the South and took to the streets in massive protests against the United States' presence in Vietnam, these are much quieter days.
Some marches are likely, over the issue of nuclear disarmament in particular, but a more common type of activism will be the sophisticated lobbying of state legislatures on funding issues, and negotiations with campus administrators to achieve a greater student voice in running things.
In most interviews with college student-government leaders at the July 21-25 national conference here of the US Student Association (USSA), the only major noncampus issues cited as top concerns were nuclear disarmament and El Salvador.
The nuclear issue is still a big one on many college campuses. US involvement in El Salvador, however, so far has failed to ignite much reaction, these leaders say.
But, says Janice Fine, president of the USSA, ''If (President) Reagan turns up the heat (on US involvement in El Salvador), campuses will begin to get fired (up).''
Meanwhile, she sees the top college student issues as: financial aid, opposition to federal legislation (being challenged in court) requiring draft registration in order to get financial aid, civil rights enforcement, the arms race, and youth unemployment.
But even her agenda is broader than what most student leaders said they anticipate this fall on college campuses.
The USSA should focus more on the ''bread-and-butter student issues,'' said Jim Tierney, president of the student association of the state university campuses in New York.
But to be effective on these issues, student leaders must lead sophisticated, well-organized efforts, he said.
He cites campus letter-writing campaigns to Congress and the state Legislature on such issues as student-aid cutbacks and linking draft registration to financial aid. And when the New York Legislature was considering sharp cutbacks in funding for college faculty and staff, several thousand students from the state university system traveled to Albany, the state capital, to lobby against the cuts.
This kind of effort requires flexible student leaders, said Mr. Tierney, who sports a beard and longish hair. When the state Legislature is in session, ''my hair gets short and my beard gets trimmed,'' he said.
This kind of working within the system was cited frequently by student leaders meeting here. Students ''realize you don't have to go out in the middle of the street or burn a building,'' said John Kreft, a student leader from Wisconsin. ''You can talk to people and get stuff done that way.''
But occasionally it is important to take to the streets, said John Lewis, an Atlanta City Council member who spoke at the conference. He had participated in some of the early sit-ins and bus rides to integrate lunch counters and interstate public transportation in the heat of the civil rights clashes. Students today have a ''mandate from history and almost a moral imperative to continue the struggle, to agitate for what is good and right.''