Tuition charges at most Washington area colleges will rise steeply again this fall, continuing a nationwide rise in college costs, which have climbed more than twice as fast as inflation for the last four years.

At Georgetown University, the area's highest-priced college, undergraduate tuition and required fees will reach $10,180, up 8.5 percent from the past academic year. With room, board, travel and other costs, total expenses for a student will be about $16,000 a year, or more than $64,000 for the four undergraduate years of college.

Other private universities in the area have set tuition rises of 8 to 16 percent while the University of Maryland has announced an increase of 7 percent and the University of Virginia 9.9 percent.

The general cost of living, as measured by the government's consumer price index, has risen 3 percent in the last year.

"In the college market there seems to be a bidding up of costs and quality, and people seem willing to pay for it," said Lawrence E. Gladieux, director of the Washington office of the College Board. "There's a pecking order, of course, and it's some kind of badge to charge a lot. It's something like medicine where cost and quality seem to be tied . . . . And the availability of aid has at least facilitated things."

Generally, the most prestigious private universities cost the most, with Stanford and the Ivy League schools all charging more than $11,/000 in tuition this fall after increases of 7 to 9 percent. The charges at heavily subsidized public colleges remain much lower, but among them tuitions also are scaled according to perceived quality and selectivity.

This fall, the University of Virginia, near the top of all these scales, will charge $2,238 for state residents and $5,468 for out-of-staters. During the past five years, as its tuition has about doubled, applications to U-Va. have soared by more than 40 percent.

Officials at most colleges say substantial tuition increases are needed for faculty pay raises and deferred maintenance, both of which lagged during the double-digit inflation of the late 1970s. In addition, many colleges are boosting financial aid and adding new research equipment, computers and professorships in an effort to improve quality. Competition for good faculty has increased.

Students now expect more services, such as career counseling, and better facilities, such as elaborate student activity centers, several college officials said. The colleges provide them -- at a cost -- to remain competitive.

Despite the financial pain for students and parents, applications to most schools continue to rise and the academic quality of new students is increasing.

Two factors underlying this pattern appear to be the gains in academic achievement in high schools, as measured by the Scholastic Aptitude Test during the last four years, and the upswing in the American economy, which has produced sustained rises in real family income.

"Many people lost confidence in the dark days of the recession in 1982," said Richard Berendzen, president of American University. "But now the country seems more optimistic. Many of the things that the colleges feared haven't happened. We've found the consumers are willing to pay for quality . . . . And federal student aid has done well in Congress" despite repeated attempts by the Reagan administration to trim it.

Despite cuts in education benefits for Social Security recipients and veterans, other federal student aid programs have increased by 46 percent since 1981, rising this year to $15.5 billion. The bulk of the rise has been in subsidized, guaranteed loans, which have climbed from $3.9 billion in 1979-80 to $9.4 billion this year.

Over the last decade, as student debt has ballooned, loans have risen from 17 percent to 50 percent of all student assistance.

"Things are going well for us now," said Berendzen of AU, which has raised tuition by 8.9 percent for next fall and expects to have a larger freshman class with higher average SAT scores, "but it's a little scary."

Berendzen said if student debts continue to grow, their burden "may make it hard for people to go into their professional lives."

Although not all colleges are equally robust, the only ones locally with conspicuous problems are the community colleges in the suburbs and the University of the District of Columbia, all of which have similar open-admissions policies. Like many relatively low-cost, nonselective institutions around the country, their tuition increases in recent years appear to have contributed to an enrollment drop.

To counteract these declines, the Virginia General Assembly passed a special $3.9 million appropriation, allowing all the state's two-year colleges, including Northern Virginia Community College, to cut tuition by 4.3 percent this fall. Montgomery College is raising its charges by just 2.9 percent.

However, UDC, under pressure from the District government, which pays almost 90 percent of its instruction costs, plans a 28 percent rise on top of a 40 percent jump two years ago. But at $634 a year for residents, its undergraduate tuition will remain by far the lowest in the area.

"There are different sorts of people going to these community and open-admissions colleges than you have at the other schools," said J. Wade Gilley, senior vice president at George Mason University, who has written extensively on higher education. "Most of them now are part-time students. Many are adults just taking a course. Many are poor . . . . They are marginal students looking for a marginal change in their lives. When the prices go up, they figure it's not worth it . . . . The stronger students will pay more elsewhere and go into debt to get what they think is a good education that will really make a difference in their lives."

In Virginia, as in many other states, tuition increases at public colleges have been greater than the rise in their expenses as part of a policy to shift more college costs onto students and away from taxpayers. The shifts usually started when the states were in a financial crunch, but have continued after the economy and state appropriations picked up.

Since the policy was adopted by Virginia in 1982, the proportion of costs paid by state college students has risen from 30 to 35 percent. At the same time, the state has increased its own financial aid for needy students and relied more on federal aid programs than on its own subsidies.

A similar policy has been adopted at Howard University and Gallaudet College, which, even though they are private institutions, receive large appropriations from Congress.

At Howard, where federal funds cover about two-thirds of educational expenses, the trustees raised tuition by 16.3 percent to $3,915 this fall. They acted under pressure from the U.S. Department of Education.

According to an Education Department study, Howard's tuition is much lower than at comparable schools, even though the family income of its undergraduates "is about average" compared with other similar historically black institutions. "Hence, increases in tuition are unlikely to discourage attendance," the department said, "particularly since federal student aid programs as well as other sources of student aid could finance much if not all of the increase for needy students."

At many other private colleges part of the tuition increase is an effort to raise more money from well-to-do students to cut costs for needy ones. In the last few years many of these colleges also have increased their "no-need" academic scholarships, designed to attract top students to their schools.

"It's one form of income redistribution," Berendzen said. "The tuition goes up a little bit more so the most needy or most meritorious will get aid."

According to a survey by the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education, about a quarter of the colleges' own financial aid now goes for academic scholarships. In effect, "students of 'average' academic qualifications increasingly support 'the best and the brightest,' " wrote Michael O'Keefe, the consortium's president, in a recent issue of Change Magazine.

Such aid amounts to discounting, O'Keefe said. It is becoming so widespread -- along with policies of charging more for high-demand programs such as medicine, engineering, and law -- that paying for college "is increasingly like buying an airplane ticket with all the discounts and special deals," O'Keefe said.

Even though the academic scholarships are opposed by some top colleges, Berendzen said they are necessary to meet the "really fierce competition for the most academically able students."

"We don't want to go too far," he said. "But sometimes the students and their families put it on the line. They tell you what other schools are doing for them and ask, 'What are you guys offering?' "

Some of the sharpest criticism of tuition increases has come from U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett, who said a year ago that they were "out of hand."

"What are we in government supposed to do?" Bennett said. "Pay the entire bill no matter what the cost? . . . The more money the federal government puts into the higher education system . . . the effect ultimately has got to be to drive those costs up . . . . We talk about hospital cost control. Why can't we talk about university cost control?"

College officials have strongly disputed Bennett, noting that tuitions continued to climb rapidly even during the one year early in the Reagan administration when aid declined.

But Berendzen said he is worried that "if tuition increases were to be too much higher than the general cost of living for too long, then the fear will come true that the middle-income will be squeezed severely at college and the low-income won't be able to afford it." So far that has not happened at American colleges, Berendzen said, "but we're nervous."