Continuing education has come of age.

As the number of college-age students steadily decline and the number of babyboom generation adults returning to the classroom increases, colleges and other institutions are waging a pitched marketing battle for the part-time tuition dollar.

More than 75 percent of the nation's colleges and universities have a continuing education program, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. In 1978, almost 17 million adults paid nearly $1 billion for adult education courses, the center reported.

In the Washington-Baltimore area, colleges and universities are actively wooing adults to sign up for courses in everything from career counseling to chemistry. George Washington Unviersity's continuing education program, the largest and one of the oldest in the area, even offers a course in cemetery management.

Continuing education courses are being offered by a growing number of noneducationional institutions as well. Government agencies, corporations, associations and community groups are all competing for their share of this burgeoning market.

John Gilheany, director of continuing education at Catholic University of America, estimates there are more than 200,000 people in the Washington area who are over 25 and have just three years of college.

"You have to service the population," he said. "And the population is becoming more adult. And revenues are important. No school would undertake a program that is not cost-effective."

A surey conducted by University of Maryland adult education professor Robert Carbone found that between July 1978 and June 1979 the state's 54 public and private colleges offered 8,300 noncredit courses for a quarter of a million adults.

"There seems to be two parallel trends," carbone observed. "There are very utilitarian, career-related course, and going along with that is a great surge in courses in all kinds of avocational things. With the advent of more people with more leisure time and more people retiring, there is a lot of growth in that area."

Another major factor is the "changing status of women." With more women entering the labor force, additional education may be necessary for them to compete successfully with their male counterparts, Carbone said. Competition has increased as the babyboom population of the late '40s and early 50s "move into the work force full-blown," carbone added.

Part of the recent growth in this segment of education, Carbone asserts, also has to do with the notion in our society that success comes easier or quicker when one has a degree or certificate -- what he terms "credential mentality."

"Most people in adult education think the major factor in the surge is the fact that the general education attainment level in the population is growing all the time." Carbone added. "There is a relationship between prior and continuing education. Those who have had more education go on to get still more."

"We've always had more adult students," said Mary Anna Dunn, assistant to the chancellor for university relations at the Unversity of Maryland's University College. "What we find is that more young people are delaying entry into college instead of going straight out of high school."

The average age of students is continuing education courses for credit at University College was 30.9 last year, compared with an average age of 32.9 a decade ago. Enrollment increased from 16,878 in 1969 to 20,291 in 1979. Participation in noncredit courses grew from 10,162 in 1969 to 18,997 in 1979.

Two years ago, American University, faced with declining enrollment, rebuilt its continuing education program and launched a sophisticated advertising campaign with the theme "Jog Your Mind."

The program now has more than 500 accredited courses in its catalogue in everything from Jewish studies to script-writing. The AU cataloigue reads like corporate advertising copy: "The American University is helping adults make the most intelligent investment . . . in themselves. We are jogging minds to meet the challenges of the new decade. We're The American University, where academic investment and a dedicated approach to education is paying great dividends."

The heightened competition among colleges and universities for students has some experts worried. In its final report, "Three Thousand Futures: The Next 20 Years for Higher Education," the Carnegie Council on Policy Studies in Higher Education offered this pessimistic scenario:

"Colleges and universities will compete for ever more scarce students in destructive ways -- including false advertising, easy academic credits, soft courses, grade inflation. To an alarming degree, some of this happened even before total enrollment started to go down. Public confidence in higher education erodes. Controls increase."

In a report to Congress, Alice Rivlin of the Congressional Budget Office proposed a program of federal support for colleges and universities to improve continuing education.

"It has been my experience that college administrators tend to be highly responsive to financial incentives," Rivlin wrote. "Therefore, Congress should provide substantial support to institutions for the development and delivery of nontraditional continuing education services and programs, or perhaps withhold funds from those institutions whose practices discourage the enrollment of adult learners (such as an institution's refusal to give credit for the course offered by its own extension division). I predict this would result in a substantial increase in collegiate sector continuing education and community service programs and a significant improvement in the quality and relevance of their offerings."

For the students, these programs provide an opportunity to polish up on the latest technology in computers, complete a bachelor's degree, obtain an advanced degree or simply pursue an avocation.

The Center for Educational Statistics' survey revealed that most 39 percent of the continuing education students hoped to "improve or advance" in their current job. Another 31.2 percent were enrolled for "personal or social reasons."

For the universities, the programs (credit and noncredit) mean money, although the profit potential of these programs is a matter of some debate.

"Adult education has become big business," said Linda Hartsock, executive director of the Adult Education Association of the USA."It is a growth industry. It used to be a stepchild and now it is front and center stage. Providers of education see it as a human service but also a way to make money."

"The numbrer of part-time students and students taking noncredit courses has generated some revenue for colleges," Carbone said. "These courses make some money, but they don't really save a college from going under."

Universities may institute a continuing education program as a means to attract more full-time students, but "they are certainly not the answer to the prospective decline in enrollment," according to Father John Whalen of the Consortium of Universities.

"The total net income after expenses is not enough to offset the decline in enrollment," he added. Whalen said the drop-off in college-age between students will be anywhere between 25 percent and 35 percent during the next 12 years.

University College, the continuing education annex of the University of Maryland, will spend about $7 million for its program during the current school year. Revenues probably will equal that figure.

The college spends an average of $100,000 a year to advertise its approximately 1,900 courses, which are conducted at 45 locations in and around the state.

At GW, the College of General Studies makes a small surplus on its $5 million in annual revenues. "There is a tremendous market for off-compus education programs, and the economics of it is very strong," said Robert Holland.

"But there is a mistaken idea that off-campus programs are money-makers," he continued. "We lose money on some programs and we make money on others, and we try to balance it. Some schools are in it for profit, and once it's no longer profitable, they pull up and leave and leave the student hanging."

The area's community colleges are one of the greatest and most accessible sources of continuing education. Highly successful in this area is the small business and management program, cosponsored by the Small Business Administration at Montgomery College, Prince George's Community College and Northern Virginia Community College. Most of the instructors own small businesses.

"Most of the students are in the 30s and 40s," said program director Lynne Waymon of the small business management program at Montgomery College. "Some are about to retire and are looking for a second career. Many are pursuiing the American dream of owning their own business."

The SBA also is cosponsoring a successful series of management courses at Howard University's Small Business Development Center, which is part of its School of Business and Public Administration.

Lucrative or not, continuing education is not the sole property of universities, however. According to Hartsock, the federal government and the military are among the largest providers of life-long education.

The Department of Agriculture's Graduate School has been offering a variety of courses to the public for 60 years. Almost 40,000 people a year participate in the program, the primary purpose of which is to improve job performance and help further careers.

USDA's Graduate School is a nonprofit institution whose main source of revenue comes from tuition, which ranges from $60 to $200 per course.

Ironically, very few of the courses have to do with agriculture. Courses include computer and library science, law and paralegal, personnel administration, management and accounting.

More and more businesses are realizing the value of making educational opportunities available to their employes as well as outsiders.

Jim Pavlakis, staff manager of continuing education programs at Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone Co., sums up the company's philosophy this way: "The employe gives his own time and we give encouragement and the means, and that's a nice marriage."

The C & P program actually consists of three separate programs: basic education, home-study courses; a tuition-assistance plan; and an in-house school system of basic-skills courses aimed at entry-level personnel.

The three programs can be used together to assist a C & P employe obtain the necessary skills to move up the corporate ladder, Pavlaskis said.

Executive management courses and seminars have become one of the most popular and lucrative aspects of the continuing education explosion.

Programs abound for the middle- and upper-level executives who want to brush up on management techniques in an effort to increase their earning power.

The American Management Association takes in $40 million annually in tuition from its 3,200 managerial courses.

For the past year, MCI Telecommunications Corp., through its School of Telecommunications Management, has been selling several courses in the telephone and telecommunications field to other corporations. Students receive certificates of completion and are awarded Continuing Education Units, a unit of credit which is receiving more acceptance recently.

Another local company, STSC Inc. of Bethesda, has a program of seminars dealing with the APL computer programming language. These courses are offered in several major cities across the country and also in West Germany, France, Spain and England.

It is also not unusual for schools and businesses to work together. George Washington University's College of General Studies has several cooperative ventures with other colleges and private companies like IBM, AT & T and Computer Science Corp. of Bethesda.

"The kinds of professional courses that are popular are updates on information for professionals," said Robert Holland, dean of GW's College of General Studies. "Technology in computer science is changing so fast that one way to keep up is to attend seminors on this subject. The same is true in personnel policies because of changes in the law."

One of the college's best-attended courses was a series of seminars at its Continuing Education for Women Center on sexual harrassment, Holland said. c

The center was started as "an outlet for housewives and to bring them back into the employment stream," Holland explained.

For those considering enrolling in adult education programs, Linda Hartsock of the Adult Education Association has this advice:

"People have to be responsible consumers of education, and that means 'let the buyer beware.' Understand what you are being promised, and insist that these things be delivered before you get in. Be wary of courses that promise to get you a job . . . Beware of marketing techniques . . . The same way you shop in the grocery store, you should shop for education.""