At 2 in the afternoon in the polished lobby of the Sheraton Washington Hotel, Tim Whipple, a University of Miami senior, and Craig Melone, a junior in straw cowboy hat, are finishing off the last of their beers. They are clean-cut, self-possessed, jean-clad.

They have $100,000 to spend. They will spend it on live music -- "talent," as it is called in the business.

Because Whipple, who is very good at what he does and takes it very seriously, is head of the University of Miami's Student Entertainment Committee, a job that ranks in prestige with those of student body president and newspaper editor. And Melone is his right-hand man. They are part of an eight-member delegation, sent at university expense -- air fare, meals and hotel -- to the National Entertainment and Campus Activities Association (NECAA) convention, which began here Tuesday.

For six days, 1,800 students from a total of 475 schools are junior entrepreneurs at this 20th convention of the NECAA. They will audition 60 showcased artists -- rock groups, coffeehouse musicians and singers, "roving artists" (mimes and jugglers, for example), comics and dance bands.

They will attend educational seminars on the business of show business and entertainment. They will be showered with gifts from music agencies -- buttons, T-shirts, albums, balloons, brochures. "I told everybody to half-pack their suitcases," said Whipple. "You bring back so much."

And, of course, there is beer, beer everywhere, courtesy of the beer companies.

And they will party after the official activities are over at 1 each morning, sometimes at bashes thrown by one of the groups performing. "It helps for them to have good rapport with the students," said Jo Dawkins, a University of North Carolina at Charlotte junior, clad in black satin baseball jacket hair in Farrah Fawcett waves. "It makes the delegates feel like 'Hey, these guys held a party for us; that's pretty nice.'"

The names of the groups auditioning aren't that big yet -- rock bands like Stillwater and Trapper are there. Some are people trying to make a comeback -- singers Jan and Dean, Jonathan Edwards. Others are rather established -- like Dr. Hook or Overland Express. But a good start on the college circuit can make a difference. Linda Ronstadt was at this convention in '71; Boz Scaggs in '72. Nils Lofgren, Harry Chapin, Foghat, and Earth, Wind & Fire have all done this convention.

"It's a meat market for artists," said singer songwriter Jon Ims, toting a grubby, sticker-covered guitar case slung by its strap over his back. He drove in from Denver, arrived Wednesday, got a ticket in the city, and found he had no room at the hotel.

Performers, if selected from among the applicants, must pay a showcase fee (anywhere from $150 to $500), then their agency must buy booth space in the exhibit hall. If they do well during their "audition" it can mean a year's work on the collegbe circuit.

"We're looking for opening acts for our bigger shows," said Whipple, blond, intense, a music-merchandising major who has booked Harry Chapin and Firefall, among others, for concerts at the University of Miami.

"We'll put in interest forms," said Whipple, "saying we liked what we saw, and you can get in touch with us and we'll see what we can do. When we get back on Monday we'll have a stack of phone messages this high."

Sitting a few feet away from the Miami delegation was the contingent from Georgetown -- in silkscreened SEC T-shirts (Student Entertainment Commission). They don't have the same kind of student entertainment money that the University of Miami has. A few weeks ago, their planned Stephen Stills concert for April had to be canceled -- the athletic department wanted the gym back for a possible basketball game.

"We're getting used to it," said Bill Book, chairman of the Georgetown SEC, puffing on a cigarette and smiling resignedly. "It's more important for the national recognition of Georgetown and for the alumni that the basketball team win the national tournaments and get TV than than it is that we have Stephen Stills."

While students filed in and out of the darkened, cavernous Sheraton ballroom, Stillwater's lead singer cried out to the audience, "We know y'all came here to work -- but ya also got to have a good time!"

Some hooted approvingly. Most listened contemplatively. Melanie Cates, president of the student government at Miami-Dade Community College, marked her verdicts on a rating sheet:

Stillwater: Their music blended well.

Rob Crosby Group: The female singer didn't blend well.

Trapper: Strange . . .

O'Brien and Sevara (comics): Clean, good material.

"It wasn't dirty," 19-year-old Cates explained. "On a campus of 17,000 with a multi-ethnic, multi-age population, you have to be a little selective."