America's beleaguered schools and colleges got a lift or two as commencement season rolled around again. But they faced a series of new challenges requiring the utmost in public support if the diplomas of the future are not to be devalued.
One lift came in the news that Americans gave more money than ever to colleges and universities in 1980-81 and are expected to continue the trend next year. Donations from individuals, foundations, and corporations rose by more than 11 percent to a record of $4.23 billion -- 6 percent of college spending.
Another lift came in the recognition that, contrary to the bad reputation of city high schools, many of them have been improving in academics, discipline, and morale. The Ford Foundation presented awards to more than a hundred schools in 36 cities as examples of what can be done.
The fresh challenges this year extend from economics to educational and even constitutional issues.
* The economic challenge. Government economizing at all levels requires communities, schools, parents, and students to be especially thoughtful in utilizing the resources that remain.
Communities have to review tax cuts to keep economy from turning into false economy - the inadequate schooling that undermines business, jobs, and citizenship.
Schools have to make the most efficient and creative use of reduced staffs. Some are already drawing on local volunteers and organizations to maintain the enrichment of music and the arts, for example, which are so often the first items to be slashed. Universities have to prepare themselves for changed enrollment patterns as the financial squeeze causes some students to alter choices.
Parents have to help children in finding the best available education for their needs -- and then take a continuing interest in what happens at school.
College students have to inform themselves of the jobs, loans, and scholarships still left amid the cutbacks. Students at all stages have to make full use of school opportunities and their own time and talents. They can counter what United Press International has just found at the top of an inventory of worries by graduating high school leaders -- apathy. As one of them put it: ''Most of the students don't care enough about academics and therefore don't set goals and strive for success. They have the potential and God-given talents to do wonders . . . .'' Exactly.
* The educational challenge. In addition to the recent revival of basic education, there is the need to prepare Americans for a time of rapid change: in technology (computers and robots), in employment (more in services, less in industry), in demographics (more older people in relation to the young).
Education Secretary Bell is properly calling for ''dramatic action'' in enhancing math and science education, perhaps even lengthening the school day to ensure progress. Parents are already seeing how young people can speed ahead in coping with computers -- at school and even at camp.
But the demand for precise skills in today's terms must not be allowed to overwhelm the expansion of thought that can be provided by broad, humane, and stimulating teaching. Adapting to tomorrow's changes will require the attitudes and abilities to continue learning. As the labor force has fewer young people to draw on, more older Americans are expected to have the opportunity to work beyond current retirement ages -- if they are ready to do so.
At the same time, education has a practical responsibility in easing the present structural unemployment that finds so many young people unprepared for the jobs that do remain available. It is a problem recognized in many countries. There are growing examples of business cooperating with education to offer job experience during school years and transition to regular work afterwards.
* The constitutional challenge. This is where government has to remember that the schools' teaching of the American system can be undercut when they do not exemplify it. At least four threats are pending at this commencement season:
- President Reagan's proposed constitutional amendment to allow individual or group prayer in the public schools. There is nothing to stop individual students from praying silently on their own as it is. The amendment would enlist the schools in eroding the First Amendment's separation of church and state as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
- The proposed tuition tax credits for parents of students in private schools , most of which are religious. Another bad example eroding the separation of church and state.
- The court case to stop the Internal Revenue Service from enforcing the law designed to withhold tax exemptions from schools and colleges that are racially discriminatory. It would turn equal opportunity on its head to provide tax breaks for such institutions, in effect requiring taxpayers as a whole to subsidize segregation.
- The federal efforts to inhibit universities in the free exchange of nonclassified scientific information. This has come up in relation to scholars from communist lands, and certainly national security should not be compromised by violating official secrets. But US universities rightly argue that scientific progress is fostered through interchange of nonclassified information. Here again US education should be able to exemplify the free speech enshrined in the First Amendment.
In short, if the season's commencement speakers chose to do so, they would have much to say about the schools that the graduates are leaving behind as well as the great world out there that they are plunging into.