Shares of the Student Loan Marketing Association have surged on prospects that the federal government's direct lending program may be cut back by the new Republican majority in Congress.

The stock is up an impressive 17% since yearend, and at least for now, has shed an aura of pessimism that kept it in the doldrums through last year.

Tuesday afternoon it was unchanged at $37.875.

The reason is a proposal by Rep. William Goodling, R-Pa., to cap direct student lending at 40% of the market by the end of the decade, down from 60% in current legislation.

Direct lending to college students by the government through the Department of Education is competition for Sallie Mae, and for banks to which it offers a secondary market in government-backed loans.

But several Wall Street analysts said they remain cautious about the prospects for any longer-term improvement in price for the shares of the government-sponsored enterprise.

"The shares have been so depressed (that) we would expect any sign of good news, no matter how slight or uncertain, to provide a near-term boost," said Thomas O'Donnell of Smith Barney Inc., New York.

But the analyst still rates the stock "neutral-speculative."

He cautioned his clients that a move upward in price to the high 30s or low 40s probably will prompt selling by "long-term holders that may be looking for an exit point."

He added that a 40% slice of the student lending market "is still a significant share" and that Sallie Mae "has not announced any definitive plans for other revenue sources that could offset its decreased share."

Mr. O'Donnell further noted that Rep. Goodling's proposal "is in the very early stages and could face a number of obstacles before it can be passed."

Among other things, he said, the original 1993 direct lending proposal aims to produce budgetary savings of $4.3 billion. "Any reduction would likely have to be made up somewhere else for the new bill to be passed," Mr. O'Donnell pointed out.

Also cautious, with a "hold" rating, is Francis X. Suozzo of S.G. Warburg & Co., New York. "The stock could already be at the upper end of its range," he said Tuesday.

"I viewed this as a trading opportunity from the low 30s because I felt the political risk factor was improving and the growth in the student loan program has been very strong, which will help them in future years."

Sallie Mae typically buys two-year-old loans, which he said means "the increased originations today will be positive for them in 1997-99. So they have a built-in earnings stream for probably the next four years, plus they are buying back stock."

But Mr. Suozzo placed little confidence in the prospect that direct lending will be restricted to 40% of the college loan market.

The Education Department has been successful in getting to the 40% mark ahead of forecasts made when direct lending was begun in 1993.

"That they did it in the second year was a surprise to a lot of people," Mr. Suozzo said. "It is a significant jump up from 5% the previous (academic) year."

Direct lending also is an important achievement for President Clinton, who could use his veto power to thwart any changes, both analysts cautioned.

Finally, the analysts noted that Sallie Mae's own top priority is not to roll back direct lending, but to shed its quasi-official status and enter the private sector.

Indeed, the Clinton administration unveiled plans last summer to release Sallie Mae from its federal charter.

That has prompted worries by some bankers that they could face yet another potent nonbank competitor. Sallie Mae's management has tried to soften those concerns.

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