The Washington Saturday College, which offers free college-level courses taught by volunteers at local universities, is struggling to stay afloat and calling on supporters and alumni to help pay its mounting bills.

Officials say a surge in enrollment to 3,000 students this year at the non-accredited college has pushed operating expenses beyond the school's normal private fund-raising capability.

The 22-year-old school, which is administered by volunteers working out of private homes in Southeast, is nearly $10,000 behind in bills for telephones, storage and other administrative expenses, said John H. Malone, the school's registrar.

The alternative school offers liberal arts and career training, including GED and SAT preparation, free to any student of at least high school age who applies.

There are no academic or income qualifications. The only absolute requirement is regular attendance at four hours of classes every Saturday morning, Malone said.

Officials said about 30 percent of the students are under age 30; more than 35 percent are 55 or over.

The school was founded in 1968 by Martin Pfaff, who taught in the business school of American University, primarily for inner-city and immigrant youths without the academic backgrounds or financial resources to attend most colleges.

Its first class numbered just over 200, and former chief justice Earl Warren taught a class in constitutional law the first year, school officials said.

Today the school is headed by Malone's wife, Linette, and operates with about 165 instructors teaching more than 80 subjects. Most come from the faculties of American, Georgetown, George Washington, Catholic and Howard universities and the University of the District of Columbia.

All are volunteers, as are administrative staff members. Participating universities provide free classroom space each semester.

The Saturday college has grown to attract more students mostly by word of mouth. Graduates have gone on to become university instructors, real estate brokers and government workers, Malone said.

Over the years, about 69,000 people have enrolled at the Washington Saturday College. About 22,000 have received two-year certificates of completion.

This fall's 3,000 applicants come from the metropolitan area and from as far away as Philadelphia and Fort Bragg, N.C., to pursue about a dozen majors, including paralegal studies, mathematics, music and communications. Malone said many students are referred by the Justice Department, State Department and other government agencies.

Donations are the school's only revenue source, Malone said. Traditionally, corporations such as the Potomac Electric Power Co., TRW, International Business Machines Corp. and Safeway Food Stores have underwritten the college's yearly operating expenses, which amount to about $25,000, he said.

And despite the school's mounting debt, new students are not being turned away, he said.

"It's our philosophy," said Malone. "The opportunity of an education should be denied to no one."

Tomorrow evening, the college's parent organization, the nonprofit Association for Community Education, will present a benefit fashion and variety show at Howard University's Blackburn Center.

Tickets for the 6 p.m. event are $18 at the door, $15 if purchased in advance. For more information, call 581-7509.