The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has given $3,025,000 to help remedy what many colleges consider a serious problem in liberal arts instructional programs - a deficiency in quantitative reasoning, applied mathematics, and technology.
Its approach is an example of how a foundation of modest means selects a major grant project and carries it into action. The project, more than a year and a half in development, is called ''The New Liberal Arts.''
The grant's basic premise is that all college graduates should have some competence in quantitative and analytical reasoning, plus some understanding of technology, and that the present curriculum of many, maybe even most, good colleges does not fully accomplish this.
The Sloan Foundations main interests are in science, technology, economics, management, and education for the public service as well as in instructional programs and problems of society related to those interests.
Like most foundations, it is not just a passive recipient of unsolicited streams of proposals. Neither is it a solitary arbiter initiating what it thinks best for the academic community and backing up its own ideas with money.
''Most of our grants fall in a large middle ground (of these two extremes). They are part of coherent programs that are devised by a long process of interaction between the foundation and the scholarly community. The New Liberal Arts is the outcome of just such a process,'' says Albert Rees, president of the foundation.
There were three distinct stages in Sloan's granting of $3,025,000 to 31 of the nation's leading private liberal arts colleges.
* It sought the advice of outside consultants to assist in choosing the 30 leading private liberal arts schools in the country.
''We chose them (the 30 independent liberal arts schools) by the SAT college entrance test scores of their students,'' says James. D. Koerner, vice-president of Sloan. ''It was a competition, so we needed criteria to make the selection. We went to ETS (Educational Testing Service) for assistance. Some people think the trickle-down theory is suspect, but we'e going with that. Our assumption is they'll create a lot of instructional material and the influence will spread.''
* After the 30 schools were selected (it turned out to be 31 because the scores of two were so close), a planning grant of $10,000 was offered on a matching basis. Each college involved was notified of the foundation's intent to serve as both a stimulus and funding source with the planning grant.
''By expecting matching money we could be sure of getting the best possible planning from each institution,'' Mr. Koerner said. The process became an interaction between Sloan and the academic communities of the campuses involved, as well as a discussion within the communities apart from Sloan, ''Which is exactly what we hoped to stimulate,'' Koerner said.
* The funds were granted for three years. Originally there were to be only 10 finalists, but the quality and depth of response strengthened Sloan's conviction that what was being attempted was on target. ''A 3-to-1 competition ratio was our initial plan in the selection process. We expanded the program to include 21 lesser grantees to mold them all into a network. The smaller grants were not at all intended as consolation prizes,'' Koerner said.
Ten of the colleges will receive grants of $250,000 each for three years. They are: Carleton , Minn.; Davidson, North Carolina; Grinnell, Iowa; Lafayette, Penn.; Mount Holyoke, Mass.; Oberlin, Ohio; Union, N.Y.; Vassar, N.Y.; Wellesley , Mass.; Williams, Mass. The 21 others will receive smaller grants of $25,000.
As a further effort to make the trickle-down theory of disseminating information work, a separate $47,000 grant was given to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to play host to faculty members from major science universities and from the 31 recipient colleges over an extended period of time. The purpose will be to explore ways the two types of institutions - science and liberal arts - can collaborate in preparing teaching materials in technology and in training faculty members.