Higher education in Washington is big business -- but an expensive business to run.

The city's six universities -- American, Catholic, Georgetown, George Washington, Howard and the University of the District of Columbia -- contribute about $2 billion a year to the city's economy, estimated Charles E. Diehl, vice president and treasurer of George Washington University.

But, like nearly all universities, Washington's schools face massive costs running undergraduate, master's, doctoral and professional degree programs.

By 1964, the city's five private universities -- UDC did not yet exist -- recognized that they often were either running expensive, duplicative course offerings to satisfy the needs of a handful of students, or were unable to offer certain courses because of lack of interest or financial resources to run them.

So, 20 years ago, the universities banded together to form the Consortium of Universities. The agreement allows a student at one university in the consortium to take a course offered at any other school in the group.

By 1970, the presidents of the five universities ordered dramatic new steps toward pooling their resources, both to conserve money and increase educational quality. The presidents envisioned combining their purchasing power, amalgamating doctoral departments into consortium programs and coordinating library resources.

Despite support for the consortium at the highest levels -- the presidents of the consortium universities meet twice a month -- eliciting cooperation at lower levels has been more difficult; some members of the consortium question its effectiveness as a major factor in controlling costs.

Part of the dilemma is that each of the universities has a strong self-image, and each has spent years working to move toward self-sufficiency in a variety of academic disciplines.

"The presidents might have been able to look down from the top and see the advantages of widespread cooperation and consolidation of key parts of the universities. But every time you talk about cooperation, somebody thinks he may lose his job," said a top official at one university in the city.

But the head of the consortium said he thinks cooperation is growing fast.

"It takes time before people get to the point where they realize their needs are really identical," said the Rev. John P. Whalen, executive director of the consortium for the last 12 years. "That point has now been reached, and I'm overwhelmed."

Whalen, who once was acting president of Catholic University, said officials of consortium universities are working on a number of plans that he believes could save the universities money, permit them to deploy their limited resources more efficiently or make the local universities more attractive to students.

Among the key efforts, he said, are a consolidation of expensive library collections and a joint student-loan effort in cooperation with the D.C. government.

John J. Murphy, executive vice president of Catholic University, said he remains skeptical that the consortium universities ever will be able to cooperate to the extent necessary to make the broader consortium promise a reality.

Murphy said the consortium's biggest success has been offering all students in local universities the opportunity to take a wide range of courses on other campuses that no single university could offer "without bankrupting itself."

Murphy said that the consortium's efforts probably will remain marginal until member universities are willing to offer consortium-wide doctoral programs that draw on faculty from each institution.

George Washington's Diehl agreed that so far it is hard to find consortium projects -- beyond class-sharing -- that have had large economic significance to member schools. A hard-to-measure advantage of the consortium, he said, is the joint voice it gives the area universities in dealing with a variety of regulatory issues that have an economic impact on them.

The consortium has been able to take joint stands on issues such as zoning and utility rates that affect all of its members, he said. Not only does joint testimony have more clout, but the universities also are saved from duplicating each others' expenses in hiring lawyers to represent them.

On the whole, however, Diehl said the economic impact of the consortium has not been "earthshaking."

Besides the founding schools, the consortium includes UDC, which joined in 1978 after it was accredited, and the University of Maryland's main campus at College Park. Gallaudet College, Mount Vernon College and Trinity College are associate members.

Whalen counters the criticism of other consortium spokesmen by saying that the barriers to cooperation that existed 10, or even five, years ago have eroded. The consortium is coming to "fruition," Whalen said.

He points to the library and student loan projects as evidence of the changing tide.

The six libraries are working on an elaborate plan that would create, in effect, a unified library collection that would encompass more than 5 million volumes. Donald Dennis, the university librarian at American University, said the project would create a top-flight research university that is beyond the scope of anything the universities could create individually.

The project is not designed to reduce library expenditures but to give library expenditures more bang for the buck.

"It makes great good sense," said Marie Helene Gibney, assistant vice president for academics at Georgetown University.

The library project still is in the planning stage, in part because of the immense technical difficulties entailed in meshing libraries that have developed their own cataloguing and collecting procedures independently for decades.

Dennis said the ambitious plan not only would aim to eliminate expensive and unnecessary duplication of little-used books and periodicals essential for doctoral studies, but also would put the collections of all the libraries on one computer catalogue and combine the resources of all the universities to create a central book preservation and storage facility that none of the institutions alone could afford.

Georgetown's Gibney said the level of cooperation among normally turf-protective librarians has amazed her.

For several years, graduate students and faculty have been able to obtain material from any consortium university within 24 hours. At the same time, undergraduates taking classes on another campus have access only to that school's library.

In some extremely esoteric areas, one or another library has assumed responsibility for acquisitions, according to Eric Ormsby, director of Catholic University's libraries. For example, he said, Catholic is responsible for building a collection on the ancient Near East, while Georgetown builds the modern Near East collection.

Dennis said that if the unified catalogue becomes a reality -- which may be some time away because of start-up expenses and the technical difficulties -- the libraries will be able to make far better use of their limited resources.

Individual universities will have to maintain their own collections to support undergraduate and probably master's degree programs as well, he said. But for doctoral programs -- where the costs are the highest -- shared acquisition programs make sense, from both a space and a financial perspective.

"Not every university needs to have The Italian Journal of Physics," said Catholic's Ormsby. If one library has it and any other library can get it in 24 hours, that is more than sufficient, he said.

By pooling their efforts, the consortium universities can create a joint research library that would enable the city to attract even higher-caliber faculty and students, as well as give the schools some control over the burgeoning costs of running and maintaining a modern university research library.

If completion of the library project is in the distance, Whalen said he hopes to have a consortium student loan program in place by spring.

The program, which needs the financial assistance and approval of the District of Columbia, would "provide an attractive alternative for the student who needs support," said George Washington's Diehl.

Under the plan, Whalen said, the city would sell $50 million in revenue bonds and the consortium then would borrow the proceeds, with a guarantee to the city of repayment. Any of the consortium universities then would be able to draw on those funds to make education-related loans to students.

If the city agrees to sell the $50 million in tax-exempt bonds, Whalen said the funds should last the universities about three years. He said a loan recipient would begin repaying the loan the month after he or she receives the loan, but he said he hoped the rate and the terms would be sufficiently attractive to make it financially possible for a number of students to attend a Washington school.

Often, Whalen said, there is a gap between the federal and university assistance that can be provided to an individual student and the assistance the student needs to go to college.

The joint loan program can fill in that gap, he said. The minimum loan would be $2,000 a year and the maximum $12,000, Whalen said. In no case could the size of the loan exceed the cost of education -- including tuition, room, board, travel and books.

A $2,000 loan for 15 years (the anticipated term) at an interest rate of 9.5 percent would require a monthly repayment of $20.88, Whalen said.

Whalen said the financing effort would be difficult for any school to do by itself, but that the cooperative effort could give the local universities a leg up on colleges and universities in other cities.

Whalen cited a number of other avenues in which the consortium must coordinate efforts if it is to fulfill the mandate set down 14 years ago by the university presidents:

* Joint acquisition of computers. The coming supercomputers, which will be almost as essential to research as libraries, will be financially out of the reach of most individual universities, Whalen noted. But jointly, the universities could buy a supercomputer to which all had access.

* Joint purchasing of products such as oil, chemical supplies and other items that all universities need. Joint purchasing has been tried already with limited success. Whalen said a joint oil purchasing plan was arranged in the early 1970s, but before it could be put into effect, the Arab oil embargo struck. The universities ran back to their traditional suppliers, afraid they otherwise wouldn't be able to get the fuel they needed in a time of shortage.

The last tax bill sandbagged one of Whalen's pet projects: a tax shelter that would have permitted the consortium to sell tax-exempt notes to finance the purchase of equipment, passing the depreciation and tax credits to the purchasers of the notes and permitting the universities to obtain the equipment -- computers, typewriters and the like -- at far lower cost.

But legislators banned the use of tax-exempt bonds to finance equipment that is destined for tax-exempt use, as it would be at a university.