THE old saying ''It's jail or Yale'' is taking on a harsher reality today for states with limited budgets.
America's get-tough stance on crime and trend toward longer prison sentences is straining many states' finances and, intended or not, forcing cutbacks in funding for public universities, analysts say.
''Higher education budgets have been going down as prison budgets are going up,'' says Julie Bell of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.
''Between prisons and Medicaid, states have got to be pulling from somewhere,'' Ms. Bell says. ''Higher education happens to have the luxury of being able to replace its money by other sources, i.e., tuition. So it becomes a prime candidate for cuts.''
For the past three fiscal years, higher education's share of state budgets has declined while spending on corrections has exploded. Between 1987 and 1993, state spending increases for corrections outpaced higher education by 41 percent nationwide, according to the National Association of State Budget Officers.
Alarmed at the loss of funding for higher education, some college presidents are blaming the proliferation of such popular anticrime policies as ''three strikes and you're out'' laws, which have passed in more than a dozen states. ''Three strikes'' laws mandate life sentences without parole for felons convicted of a third serious crime.
Some college administrators are lashing out at the corrections industry, which they view as a threat to future education opportunities. The priority on stiffer sentencing comes at a high cost for public universities, says Myles Brand, president of Indiana University.
''It's short-term thinking, responding to immediate political pressures rather than thinking of the long-term health of our country and citizens.'' At Indiana University, state funding has declined from 30 percent to 24 percent of the budget in the last 15 years.
THE cost of ''three strikes'' laws is expected to accelerate the loss of funds for public universities. ''The problem is particularly acute in California where more of the budget is tied up in propositional requirements,'' says David Breneman, a professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in Cambridge, Mass.
Costs resulting from California's three-strikes law, passed last year, are anticipated to be more than $2 billion in 1996-97, according to the California Higher Education Policy Center.
''Those costs are being passed on to the students who are really feeling the effects of all this,'' says Joni Finney, associate director of the California Higher Education Policy Center.
More students will be reaching public universities just as the crime crackdown is intensifying. In the next 15 years, the high school graduation rate is expected to rise 34 percent, producing a rising tide of students expecting a college education.
''You're looking at potentially huge, huge enrollment growth,'' Bell says. ''It's really causing lots of consternation on the part of legislatures about how to plan for this.'' Public university systems are beginning to contemplate such drastic measures as enrollment caps and a moratorium on out-of-state students.
''If you use even the most conservative assumptions, we're going to have at least 50 percent more students in California colleges and universities between now and the year 2006,'' Ms. Finney says.
She and other education proponents suggest that a crisis may be required to get the public's attention. ''I don't think families will just sit around and watch their children be excluded while states spend all their money on prisons. We have to avoid making a choice between keeping our streets safe or sending our kids to college. At some point, we've got to be able to do both.''
So far, much of the public seems unaware of the tradeoffs required to dramatically increase spending on the criminal justice system. ''We've got a major problem in this country right now of the public not being able to think very coherently about collective choice,'' Professor Breneman says. ''People are driven more by passion than reason.''