Peggy Goldsmith, 48, a prize-winning needlepoint artist and founder of a handicrafts marketing co-op, dropped out of Sarah Lawrence in her sophomore year to get married. But over the years she never lost her desire to some day get a college degree - especially after seeing two children through graduate and law school.

Walter Person Jr., 35, left Howard 1niversity after his first semester, for marriage, a family and work as a telephone repairman and line foreman. A recent promotion as a community relations officer for Chesapeak and Potomac convinced him it was time to continue his college education.

When Andrew Radigan, 36, graduated from high school he felt he had had his fill of the classroom. But that didn't last long. After a year, he was enrolled in non-credit design classes at the Corcoran School of Art. Now he is vice president and creative director of a Georgetown advertising agency and sees a college degree "as a stepping stone in my career to move into other media."

All three are now back in school part time pursuing their degrees under an American University program that grants up to 30 semester hours (a full year's work) for experience acquired on the job, in community or political activities, travel, hobbies or other learning activities. The program, beginning its fourth semester this fall at AU, is called Assessment of Prior Experiential Learning, or APEL (pronounced apple).

APEL is aimed at the growing number of over-25s who missed out on a college degree the first time around and who have over the years gained expertise in one field or another that relates to the academic world. Washington is full of accomplished people who don't have a degree, says APEL director Lenore Saltman. Her students have included GS-12s and -13s responsible for large budgets and staffs.

"Most of them make more money than I do," she says.

And APEL helps them get their degree faster and cheaper. For night adult students with families, jobs and other responsibilities, "any kind of savings is a plus," says Saltman.

Around 300 colleges and universities nationwide have similar programs.

Under the AU program, students enroll for two semester-long courses that meet weekly. In the first, they analyze their learning experiences and prepare extensive portfolios, later submitted to faculty members who determine the number of credits to be granted for them.

Person says his portfolio earned him 25 semester hours because of his technical training in electronics and the supervisory skills he developed as a foreman. Goldsmith earned the full 30, part for her design artistry and part for her managerial skills with the co-op. She also was advanced into a graduate-degree program, skipping her bachelor's degree.

Most of the portfolios are in thick binders, but when Radigan submitted his - including many of his business designs for brochures and annual reports - he had to borrow a dolly to wheel it into the APEL office.

"It was as big as my desk," says Saltman, and it earned Radigan his full 30 credits, advancing him a year closer to his degree.

The second class, called "Issues, Ideas and Words," reintroduces to the kind of reading, writing and analysis of ideas they'll find on campus. APEL officials felt it would be too hard on older students to "dump them cold into academia," says Saltman.

Of the 142 who enrolled in APEL's first three semesters, 22 percent had no previous college experience and 38 percent had less than 10 semester hours. Only a few have been granted the full 30 hours of credit, and some, says Saltman, "have been disappointed not to earn what they thought they should."

At American University, the cost of each of the two APEL courses is $405. There is a $175 fee for assessment of the portfolio, a $25 application fee and an eventual "posting" fee of $20 per credit that the portfolio earns.

For a student who receives 15 semester hours credit for his portfolio, the cost of completing APEL would be $1,310. For that, the student would have received the 15 credits, plus three credits each for the two APEL classes.

In comparison, the standard cost of 21 semester hours at AU at $135 per hour would be $2,835.

AU has scheduled several hour-long orientation sessions beginning today through Aug. 28 for persons interested in the APEL program. Additional information can be obtained at 686-2500. Classes begin the week of Sept. 4. CAPTION: Picture 1, Artist Peggy Goldsmith, with some of her needlework; Picture 2, C&P community relations officer Walter Person Jr. in his office. By Vanessa R. Barnes and James M. Thresher - The Washington Post