One question that seems to puzzle all new college freshmen is "How long are students expected to wait for a tardy professor?"

Fortunately, most of the more-experienced students are ready with an answer.Unfortunately, their answers vary wildly, and most of them are wrong.

As Kelly Reese wrote in a recent issue of Insight, the California State University at Fresno newspaper, "Collegiate lore has it that students must sit waiting for a late professor anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. Rumors have even held that professors with a doctorate get the full 20 minutes while non-tenured profs get a mere 10."

Even that generally-correct summary of this bit of campus folklore has a flaw, since professors could hold a doctorate and not be tenured, or vice versa.

Students have told me that classes sometimes sit seriously debating the exact provisions of the campus rule they've heard about that dictates the obligatory wait for a late teacher.

Usually, before the class agrees whether to stay or to leave, either the professor arrives or the period ends. Few students attempt to look up the rule, and those who do never find it.

As far as I know, a waiting rule for late professors has never been made an official regulation by a college administration.

Kelly Reese asked Chris Alverado, secretary of student affairs at California State at Fresno, how long the obligatory wait was and got this answer:

"When I was in school, that was something everyone had an answer for, but they couldn't tell you where they got their information.

"But give me a day, and I'll find the answer. I know it's around here somewhere."

Later Alverado admitted that there was no set policy: "It's up to the professors how long they expect students to wait."

Personally, I prefer this "official response," that I got from a former college registrar who said:

"We don't care, once we have your money. There are no truant officers for colleges, and after you've paid tuition you have the right to sit in class for the entire period, whether the professor shows up or not. You can also leave anytime you wish, provided you don't disturb the rest of the class."

An anecdote about George Lyman Kittredge (1860-1941), a famous Harvard philologist, gives another viewpoint. Supposedly, when Kittredge was late to class one day his students became restless.

Just as the class started to leave, Professor Kittredge arrived and strode purposefully to the podium as his students scrambled to regain their seats.

When the shuffle of feet and scrape of chairs had died down, Professor Kittredge scowled and said, "In my day at Harvard we would never go back for a late professor!"

Reverend James Haupt, a United Church of Canada minister in Maxwell, Ontario, sent me another waiting-for-the-prof story, based, he said, "on one of those unofficial rules which never seem to appear in print."

- "Curses! Broiled Again," Jan Harold Brunvand's fourth collection of urban legends, is now available from Norton. Send your questions in care of this newspaper.