Boston — The hunted are now the hunters. America's colleges and universities, once the passive processors of whatever applications came their way, have been forced by a shrinking pool of prospective students to turn to aggressive recruitment. The switch in tactics has led to a variety of competitive new approaches to attracting students:
* In Portland, Ore., this fall 20 students will be attending Lewis and Clark College on newly instituted merit scholarships - awards based on academic performance and community service rather than financial need. The scholarships were begun in part to ''address increased competition,'' according to director of admissions Robert H. Loeb III.
* Boston College has turned a relatively humble networking program of three years ago into a pyramid of 3,000 alumni who contact virtually every candidate in the applicant pool, 600 students who visit their former high schools on vacation, and 100 faculty members who attend parent-student receptions organized by 90 separate councils around the country - all topped off by an enlarged staff of 28 admissions specialists.
The new marketing strategy is responsible ''in large measure'' for effectively doubling the number of applications per year to BC over the past 10 years, according to Charles Nolan, director of admissions.
* Business at the The Ingersoll Group, an education consulting firm in Denver , Colo., has increased 75 percent over a year ago. Ronald Ingersoll, the company's president, estimates that 60 to 70 percent of colleges and universites are now involved in some type of marketing, up from roughly 25 percent five years ago - and up from virtually no such activity 10 years ago.
''The whole admissions profession has changed from that of gatekeeper to market analyst, enrollment specialist, and planner,'' says Joseph A. Merante, director of admissions and student aid at the University of Pittsburgh and a leading authority on admissions.
Historically, it has not been until after a student applied to a college that the wheels of an admissions office began to turn. But the application process is no longer the first step. Now institutions are researching first, identifying the students they want and then communicating with them - often on a one-to-one basis.
The reason for the varied new approaches to marketing and admissions is the decline in the number of college-aged young people. Close to 1 million fewer students are expected to be enrolled full time at colleges and universities in the late 1980s than were enrolled last year. The same number of colleges chasing fewer potential students has meant schools have had to scramble to maintain enrollment levels - or, in the cases of some prestigious schools, to avoid lowering their high standards.
Smith College in Northampton, Mass., chose to pare this year's entering class by 10 percent in anticipation of the enrollment crunch that is likely to peak in the mid-1980s. Officials at the school plan to keep total enrollment at previous levels by expanding exchange programs and increasing the number of older, ''nontraditional'' students.
Many of the schools trying the marketing approach have experienced a marked improvement in their recruiting efforts. By targeting specific groups of students, for example, the University of Pittsburgh has increased its applications by 30 percent over the last five years - and the quality of students has risen also.
In addition to marketing consultants, a number of schools are hiring new admissions and financial-aid personnel with marketing backgrounds. Others are training admissions officers in such skills as publications and research, areas previously outside the purview of admissions offices.
One positive outgrowth of the marketing trend in higher education is that it forces schools to clarify just what it is they are trying to do as an institution. That's because ''the first step in marketing a school is defining what the product is,'' Mr. Ingersoll says.
While some colleges are concerned about sullying their reputations by bidding for the most attractive students the way big-time football schools have long vied for linebackers, the demographic trends affect virtually all schools and leave them little choice.
One of the more controversial ramifications of the new competition between schools is the rise in merit scholarships, scholarships for academically strong students, whether or not they need financial help.
In 1976, roughly 50 to 70 percent of schools awarded merit scholarships. That figure has now risen to over 80 percent, according to Betsy Porter, director of financial aid at the University of Pittsburgh who, along with a colleague, conducted a financial-aid survey of 800 colleges last year. The survey found that 53 percent of the respondents plan to increase no-need scholarships over the next five years.
Opponents of merit scholarships argue that such awards take money out of the pockets of those who can least afford to go to college and put it in the hands of mostly middle-class youngsters who, they say, have the means to afford college without such grants.
Merit scholarships awarded by individual colleges and univerities are different from National Merit Scholarships, which are administered by the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. The corporation's scholarships are relatively few in number, compared with those now being offered by colleges nationwide.
It used to be the only profit made on illegal drugs in schools was pocketed by teen-age pushers working the hallways. No more. Now it's the schools themselves in Cataret County, N.C., who are cashing in on the illegal trade. In the past the schools were recipients of limited funds from fines levied in a local court. But a recent drug bust netted a whopping $350,000 in fines, all of which will be going to the North Carolina schools.