NEW YORK - Today's column will be a collaboration with a group of authentic experts on that burning question: Is the present generation of American youth just a bunch of crummy little materialists, unworthy to follow in the noble footsteps of their idealistic elders?The experts are the people most knowledgeable about what is actually going on inside the minds of college freshmen: college freshmen themselves.

They have been, as you might have noticed, under considerable attack of late from assorted quarters that appear to regard anyone to the right of Fidel Castro as a symbol of unbridled greed. I commented in a recent column that "today's kids have just got another bum rap" as a result of a survey of 209,627 freshmen at 390 U.S. colleges, which reported that three quarters felt being financially well-off was an "essential" or "very important" goal.

While some other commentators leaped on this as horrifying evidence that nasty greed thrives where ivy used to grow, my own view was that the freshmen were merely showing a little common sense, and that it was "high time at least one old fogey spoke up for them."

I didn't know what I was starting. The subject apparently has been stirring active debate on a number of college campuses, and now it has become part of the curriculum at at least one major institution. Professor Stacie A. Anfinson of Arizona State University assigned her freshmen English students to read several related treatises about the survey, including those that took the conventional view that it was "shocking" and "disturbing," and then to present their own conclusions.

"I found the results quite interesting," Professor Anfinson wrote me. So did I - and so, I hope, will you.

Excerpts, in the students' own words:

"Materialism has become a naughty word, when in reality it is simply another term used to describe intelligent individuals battling against the increasing cost of living. Today's college students deserve more credit for wisely planning their futures." - Ken Schafer.

"People today are not all money-minded. They are interested in having successful lives without the worry of having to struggle . . . I would have to agree with Rukeyser and say that the young students are finally coming to their senses." - Nancy Hussey.

"The point of issue is that it is difficult to pinpoint someone who is truly altruistic or truly materialistic. Even Mother Teresa had to have some level of materialism to feed and clothe herself before she could help others. . . . There should be a fine line between people who are only materialistic to a point enough to make a living and the people who are living just to see how many toys they can get before they die." - Dan Ringler.

"I don't feel America's college students are totally greedy or materialistic. The point is, students are becoming wiser and are planning more logically for their futures. I don't see what problem there is for students trying to grow up and show some maturity." - Toni Vogt.

"Rukeyser is like a favorite uncle, the one who understands, when no one else does . . . People are what they are, and will not easily betray themselves for a quick buck." - Kurt Velo.

"We are just worrying about how we are going to survive out in the real world." - Joe Cassavant.

Incidentally, if these quotes seem loaded on the side of my own argument that showing realistic concern for economics does not equate with being obsessed by it, know that Professor Anfinson almost apologized for the fact that her students had "overwhelmingly applauded" this view, leading her, with some discomfort, to take an opposing "devil's advocate" position in class.

These students don't sound to me like grubby materialists. They expressed a number of different life ambitions (ncluding Jana Gowin's perfectly sound conclusion that it "isn't necessary to make $40,000 plus a year to put food on the table"), but they seemed far more aware than their counterparts in the 1960s that you have to earn the money as well as smell the flowers - and that both occupations are worthy. Not only do I applaud these youthful philosophers, but I suspect that the economic future of this country, and its work force, may be in better hands than the pessimists believe.

Hurrah for the Class of '91!