Universities in the metropolitan area contribute an estimated $1.6 billion to the economy in the form of employe salaries, construction and student spending, according to a study released yesterday.

The Consortium of Universities of the Washington Metropolitan Area, representing nine colleges and universities, calculated direct institutional and student-generated spending in 1980-81 at $1.095 billion. Using a multiplier of 1.4 to factor in secondary spending such as taxes and purchases by its employes, the cooperative association came up with a total of $1.6 billion. That amount, the consortium boasts, puts higher education close to tourism as the area's biggest business after the federal government.

In the latest biennial survey, spending rose by a third over 1978-79. The largest single component is wages and salaries, $584 million, paid to 38,000 people. Half of those employed by consortium universities are District residents, making up 6.1 percent of the D.C. labor force.

Next is student-generated spending, $233 million. Aside from room and board students spent $175 million on books, entertainment, travel. Their families and those of applicants spent another $47 million, while conference participants paid out another $9.7 million. This type of spending showed a considerably larger increase than other segments.

Construction on Washington campuses totaled $55 million in 1980-81. Total capital spending amounted to $74 million.

Universities, which do not pay property taxes on their educational buildings, contributed $4.5 million to the District in other taxes last year.

On the other side of the ledger, the biggest source of funds for the centers of higher education is the federal government. It paid $262 million in operating expenses. The District government paid out $61.5 million, mainly for UDC. Second to the governement are not tuitions and fees of $217 million, but the $221 million paid by patients in the university hospitals.

In addition to the schools mentioned above, others in the consortium are American University, Catholic University of America, Howard University, Gallaudet College, Mount Vernon College and Trinity College.