If the '50s were a ''meritocratic'' period in Amerian college admissions and the '60s and '70s an ''egalitarian'' period, then the '80s and '90s will be a ''pragmatic'' time in which colleges must work realistically to attract the clientele they most want.
That is one conclusion of a recent College Entrance Examination Board publication, ''Personal Qualities and College Admissions.''
Due to changing demographic, economic, and legal factors, college recruiters will need to balance their emphasis on academics with desirable personal qualities of prospective students, the report says.
The centerpiece of ''Personal Qualities'' is a unique research project in which admissions procedures at nine liberal-arts colleges were subjected to extensive analysis. Two important goals of the study are:
* To help colleges be systematic in their evaluation of applicants' personal qualities and achievements, as they already are about class rank and standardized test scores.
* To help colleges increase what admissions officers call their ''yield,'' or actual enrollment of accepted applicants who choose their school rather than going to another school that has also accepted them.
The study says these two goals go hand in hand. If, for example, a college wishes to increase its pool of freshmen with demonstrated leadership skills, or writing ability, or commitment to intellectual growth, it must recruit those types of students.
The College Board found, using quantitative analyses of both the total applicant pools and the entering classes of the nine colleges, that none of the schools was able to be very selective in terms of students' personal qualities.
Furthermore, with typical admissions yields ranging between only 35 and 45 percent, colleges must be more responsive to what their potential freshmen want and need in a college education - and be able to articulate how their particular programs can fit the goals of potential applicants.
This may require market research - an activity that the College Board concedes is not popular in higher education. But it says colleges cannot ignore such factors as affirmative action, new emphasis on ''lifelong learning,'' a tighter economy, a 25 percent drop in America's 18-to-21 age group and accompanying stability in the 18-to-35 age group in the coming decade, or what the report calls ''increasingly important consumer expectations about education.''
''Colleges should view recruitment as a primary means of shaping the institution directly,'' the study concludes. And ''a creative recruitment effort should involve the faculty'' in locating a talented applicant pool and in evaluating how well the school's educational programs meet student needs.
The nine schools that opened their admissions processes to close scrutiny were Bucknell University (Pa.), Colgate University (N.Y.), Hartwick College (N.Y.), Kalamazoo College (Mich.), Kenyon College (Ohio), Occidental College (Calif.), Ohio Wesleyan University, the University of Richmond (Va.), and Williams College (Mass.).