Tentative agreement has been reached in the years-old dispute between Maryland and the federal government on a desegregation plan for the state's public colleges and universities, authorities confirmed yesterday.

After "about three years" of negotiations involving state and federal education and civil rights officials, "there's been tentative agreement on the plans in the last week or two," said James J. Mingle, chief of the education division of the Maryland attorney general's office.

The dispute stems at least in part from a complaint filed in 1970 and led to what may be one of the oldest cases still before the federal court in Baltimore, Mingle said.

As part of the five-year plan, the state commits itself to increasing the enrollment of whites at traditionally black colleges to 19 percent in 1989. White enrollment at the four black institutions was 9 percent in the base year of 1982.

In addition, the state sets a goal of increasing overall black enrollment at Maryland's predominantly white institutions, including the College Park campus of the University of Maryland, to 15 percent from 11 percent.

The tentative agreement, reported in the Baltimore Sun yesterday, could win final federal approval within "a couple of weeks," according to Mingle.

Although acceptance has not been confirmed in writing, he said, federal officials "have indicated to us that it would be acceptable."

Although officials of the U.S. departments of Justice and Education involved in the matter could not be reached yesterday, one source in the Education Department agreed that the parties "are pretty close" to a settlement.

Reaching of a tentative agreement comes only weeks before the scheduled start of a federal court trial connected to a court order that was issued in the dispute more than nine years ago.

At that time, Maryland won from Judge Edward S. Northrop of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore a temporary injunction blocking the federal government from taking the first step toward cutting off $65 million in federal aid to Maryland colleges.

Mingle said Northrop scheduled a trial early next month on the issue of whether the preliminary injunction should be made permanent.

Mingle said that in view of the tentative agreement on the desegregation plan, lawyers for the state and the U.S. departments of Education and Justice are now "engaged in meetings and discussions to come up with a suitable consent decree that would dispose of the case before Judge Northrop.

Beyond the enrollment goals, Maryland is committed under the desegregation plan to an upgrading of the four black institutions, Coppin State College in Baltimore, Bowie State College in Bowie, Morgan State University in Baltimore and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, at Princess Anne.

According to the plan, 25 new academic programs are to be set up by 1989 at the black institutions. The plan says that about $75 million in funds for the upgrading will be funneled to the schools over its life.

Although only the legislature can appropriate the funds, officials said yesterday, the state pledges to make a good-faith effort to obtain the money.

The case stems at least in part from a 1970 complaint filed by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, seeking to force desegregation of public campuses in Maryland and 17 other states. It could not be immediately determined yesterday how many other similar cases are still pending.

Virginia announced agreement with the then-Department of Health, Education and Welfare in 1978.

Maryland State Del. Howard Rawlings (D-Baltimore), in an interview yesterday, faulted the tentative agreement for failure to provide financial aid that would give access to higher education to minority students, many of whom lack financial resources.

Rawlings, who heads the education committee of the state legislative black caucus, said, "I'm surprised that OCR the Office of Civil Rights of the Education Department) didn't raise that issue."