EVERY May the American educational focus is on colleges and universities. This is the month when the senior class graduates and when high school seniors accepted at more than one college begin deciding which to attend. In two ways many of the American colleges where they will matriculate are improving their curricula. They are offering courses in liberal arts and the sciences that contain knowledge widely considered important for young people to absorb, and they are requiring students to take a certain number of them. They are holding students to higher standards of critical thinking, writing, mathematics, and learning than many colleges have done in recent years.
That is all to the good. It parallels the improvements that have been made in American public education since the release two years ago of ``A Nation at Risk,'' the report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. It called for significant improvements in American education at all grade levels and was the first of several published studies critical of pre-college education.
As for colleges, the slippage of educational standards over the past two decades at so many institutions, combined with the increased number of Americans earning college degrees, has resulted in a depreciation of the value of a diploma. Employers complain that college graduates often lack basic knowledge and are seriously deficient in writing and analytical skills.
Some colleges never did give in to the demands of the students in the 1960s for an end to course requirements and for permission to take the bulk of course work in esoteric subjects. These now are finding vindication in current college trends.
Other colleges have yet to move, or to move far enough, to restore basic education to students. The curriculum at many institutions still is in ``disarray,'' reported the Association of American Colleges. These institutions need to catch up.
The quality of education in American colleges is important and is under increasing scrutiny after several years in which American high schools were under the microscope. Many reasons exist for the change in direction of the scrutiny: One is that the cost of a college education continues to rise at a time when reductions loom in federal student aid.
Financially squeezed parents are sharply questioning colleges about cost hikes. Many institutions held tuition increases to less than inflation rates during the 1970s; in the '80s they have been raising fees faster than inflation to enable professors to catch up on salaries, to purchase computers and other equipment whose acquisition had been delayed, and to perform long-deferred maintenance.
In addition, attention is beginning to be given to another important element in the overall American educational system: the quality of tomorrow's teachers. In the next decade many American school systems -- and college faculties -- will face a wave of retirements. Too few of today's best students are going into graduate programs that lead ultimately to teaching careers, as Columbia University's president, Michael I. Sovern, recently noted. The quality of education in the future, from preschool through graduate school, is very much at issue.
Some of the best of today's teachers are leaving the profession for other careers that carry with them more respect and higher salaries.
By some estimates as many as 1 million additional teachers will be required in American classrooms by 1990.
Already in short supply are teachers of specialized subjects, particularly math and science. The problem is not confined to urban public schools. Even some quality private schools report that they are unable to find qualified, career-oriented teachers to fill science vacancies and must instead take a succession of new college graduates who intend to teach briefly before going on to graduate school and careers in industry.
Educators and teacher organizations insist the only solution is to make a teaching career relatively as attractive as other careers, particularly at the lower school levels so that incoming college students have a proper foundation. Adequate pay is a part of this requirement.
Americans should be appreciative of the strides that their colleges are making. This is not the time to rest. Today's and tomorrow's students deserve the best possible education.