OLIVER WENDELL HOLMES once referred to Boston as "the thinking center of the continent, and therefore of the planet."With more than 50 colleges and universities in the area, scholarly thought saturates the city. Year after year, it pulses with the rhythm of academic life. A Boston resident can as readily mark the seasons by tracking the ebb and flow of students as by watching the leaves turn and the weather change. September makes itself known here by the hordes of college students settling in for another nine-month stint. Each spring, commencements bring an assortment of world celebrities to impart words of wisdom to graduating classes. Following a flurry of farewells, the student population recedes for several months. By June, nonstudent Bostonians start to take back the streets and revel in the short-lived sunshine. The cycle begins anew each fall when several hundred thousand students flood the city and its immediate suburbs. The student migration is as dependable as the potholes that continually plague Boston streets. "The academic community certainly has to be on the list as one of the most powerful influences on life in the area - economically, and culturally, and demographically," says Richard M. Freeland, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. After all, the rituals of academic life in the United States began here in 1636 with the founding of Harvard College, the nation's first institution of higher education. Today, the world-class Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - both located across the Charles River in Cambridge - draw students and faculty from all corners of the globe. "Harvard is an international university in every sense of the word," says John C. Hoy, president of the New England Board of Higher Education. "It serves the world, and the same is true of MIT." But Boston's reputation as an intellectual capital stems from more than the existence of Harvard and MIT. A heavy handful of nationally respected colleges cluster around the Greater Boston area. Many prestigious specialized schools inhabit the city, including such well-known music schools as Berklee College of Mu sic and the New England Conservatory of Music. In addition, the city boasts an impressive array of art, medical, law, and business schools. "There really is nowhere else in America where you find this mix," Mr. Hoy says. "The six-state New England region has the foremost concentration of colleges and universities in the United States." As the biggest city in New England, Greater Boston claims more than half of the region's 117 colleges and universities. "The magnetism of the city is that it is probably the foremost university city in the United States," Hoy says. A recent Boston Globe survey asked students at six Massachusetts colleges if they considered New England to be the "academic center of America." Seventy percent of American students and 79 percent of foreign students said yes. Almost half of all students surveyed said they took into account both the college and its location in choosing a school. The "undergraduate culture" pervades Boston. College students "represent about a quarter of the population," Hoy says. In addition, the influx of talented faculty feeds the general cultural and intellectual life of the city. Boston basks in the benefits of a bulging academic community. Vast libraries and abundant bookstores hold promise of locating virtually any book; lectures and visiting dignitaries fill the calendar. The colleges provide art galleries, theater, lectures, and music recitals to the public. In return, Boston is "extremely hospitable to the university culture and recognizes what it brings to the very fabric of the city," Hoy says. The tradition of private institutions is well-entrenched in the region. Massachusetts is the only state in the US with more students in private colleges than in public or state schools. "By having all these institutions in the same place," Dean Freeland says, "the energies of competition have been released. They've all been under pressure to survive and attract students and money in ways that they would not in a more monopolistic system." "By the standards of the private sector in Massachusetts, the state sector is really a very late bloomer," says Clare M. Cotton, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Massachusetts. Many of the early institutions grew out of powerful religious constituencies, says Freeland, who has just completed a book documenting the history of colleges in the Boston area. As a colonial college, Harvard was sponsored by the Congregational Church; Tufts University originally had ties to the Universalists; and Boston College was founded by Jesuits. "Because Massachusetts developed such a strong profile of private colleges and universities early on, it was much harder for public higher education to find a place in the sun," Freeland says. "There hasn't been much constituency for it. The Protestant community tended to create its own institutions. And the Catholic community tended to be interested in its own institutions. It was hard for public higher education to find a base." The state's public colleges have long had difficulty gaining funding. Since 1988, budget cuts have brought increased tuition and fees while cutting into enrollment and course offerings. "Massachusetts got started with the notion that higher education would be done by private colleges," Mr. Cotton says. The state sector didn't even appear on the scene until the middle of the 19th century, he points out. For many years, Hoy says, Harvard and MIT received government subsidies. "They were viewed from the earliest years as distinct assets to the fledging city. Obviously, over several centuries that has held true."