In the mid-1960s, three Howard University professors founded a consulting firm designed, in part, to take advantage of what then seemed like a continuing flow of federal antipoverty funds to a private sector. At that time, their mission was training people for paraprofessional work.

As that company, University Research Corp. of Chevy Chase, celebrates its 15th anniversary, the times and therefore the focus of the social science consulting firm has changed dramatically. URC's mission now is setting up programs stressing local initiatives on issues ranging from urban housing rehabilitation to health care and street crime.

"Many of us lived through the social experiments of the 1960s -- have seen some successes and many failures," Gary Jonas, 35, the aggressive president of URC, told a recent staff meeting. "The attitude of the public toward social action programs has changed markedly during the intervening years.

"As much as many of us would like to rekindle the spirit of the '60s and the commitment of ideals of that period, political support, unfortunately, no longer exists," he said.

Jonas also is chairman of the Committee on Federal Contracting Practices, a group set up to respond to charges of misuse of federal money in his field. He admits the business is now a much different one.

"What we do best is try to help people who run programs outside of Washington learn the best ways to run those programs and share the experience of other local groups," Jonas said. "That's 85 percent of our work. Our purpose is not to tell people how to get federal money or how the federal government wants them to do their work."

Delivery of services has replaced solving broad problems, the goal of the era in which URC was created. "We find discussions with our clients now more often center around dollars and resources than around programs or ways to achieve things better," Jonas told the URC staff.

Jonas proudly points to a URC-Department of Housing and Urban Development program, the Community Rehabilitation Training Center. At the heart of that contract is an effort to bring local housing rehabilitation experts together to determine the best ways to combine private-sector money with public-policy housing initiatives. "All the cities have similar problems," Jonas said.

Another example of what Jonas believes is the type of program that would survive a Republican regime is the National Institute for Child Support Enforcement, an URC-supported outfit designed to insure that parents make child-support payments. That kind of operation can "only have a positive cash flow for the federal government," Jonas said. "Why should the government wind up making those kinds of payments?"

It appears that the ideological transformation of the company, which Jonas joined in 1969, goes hand in hand with the management maturity of URC. When Jonas joined the company, it was run out of one big office with 40 persons, 13 telephones and seemingly little idea of what solid business management practices were all about.

Jonas, then assistant to the URC president, knew that his Harvard Business School education would come in handy. "It took two years to get our act together," he recalled in an interview last week. t

In URC's first year, the company had a single $27,000 contract and lost $9,000. By the end of the second year, the company had brought in $634,000 in federal contracts, and since then the growth of URC has been even more dramatic.

By fiscal 1977, URC was doing $4.56 million in business, a figure that rose to $7.6 million at the end of fiscal 1979. And for the year ended Sept. 30, 1980, URC won about $9.6 million in federal contracts.

Jonas says that, although the incoming Reagan administration may be talking of steep slashes in the federal budget, particularly in the areas under the aegis of the Department of Health and Human Services, his company and the "professional services" industry in general are likely to thrive.

"The policy of the federal government ought to be to use the private sector when it is cost-effective rather than expanding the federal government," Jonas said.

The conventional wisdom around town is that the Reagan years undoubtedly will be good for the defense industry and its spin-offs, a prediction Jonas agrees with. "The BDMs (BDM International Inc.) and PRCs (Planning Research Corp.) have to get work if McDonnell Douglases and Fairchilds get work," he said. "My thought is that the nature of the work might change, but the industry should be healthy."

Further, Reagan has written to George Monroe, president of the National Council of Professional Service Firms, suggesting good times for the industry and saying that the government's procurement process -- long the focus of contractor criticism -- "is becoming more cumbersome."

"I believe that government efficiency can be increased by the judicious use of the contracting process," Reagan wrote in an Oct. 28 letter to Monroe. Reagan also said he supports "the basic policy of reliance on the private sector which was conceived during the Eisenhower administration."

Exactly what Reagan means for URC and the consulting world in general is unclear. Jonas, however, reminded his staff during the meeting that every four years brings changes to Washington, but not necessarily the types of changes that rumors suggest.

"What we've learned in the past is the need to remember that no matter who comes in, our clients survive, the programs survive, and the rumors of preferences or idiosyncracies of the new administrators or secretaries of departments rarely have any validity," he said.