With considerable hope and considerable controversy Washington's three public colleges are being merged into a new University of the District of Columbia.

Although Congress authorized the merger almost 2 1/2 years ago and a unified board of trustees took office last May, the three schools - Federal City College, Washington Technical Institute and D.C. Teachers College - are still operating as three separate institutions.

They have responded to the merger in three different ways.

Eight months after Congress authorized forming the University, Washington Tech received a $1.6 million federal grant to be spent for long-range planning over the next five years.

It has been using the money to design new courses that are highly structured to teach a series of skills and are far different from the way material is presented in the other two colleges. They will be ready for a trial run this fall, just when the merger is scheduled to go into effect.

At D.C. Teachers College, enrollment has dwindled over the past three years. Faculty members speak gloomily about a decline in the quality of students, and in one of its building the roof has leaked so badly that the geography department, has been forced to move from the third floor to the basement.

"We're just withering on the vine," said Joseph Thornton, an assistant professor who heads the faculty union at the college, "and we've been around a long time." The college dates back to 1851.

At Federal City College, the largest of the three schools being merged, the response of many faculty members has been anger, not, they say, because a merger is occuring, but because of the way it is being done.

"Federal City stands to be watered down," said John Butler, dean of its school of liberal and fine arts, "just when the quality is improving. It's incredible that this sort of plan would come from anyone with even a pretension to be a university."

Under the plan, vocational and technical students, whose two-year programs are now taught separately at WTI, will take the same basic courses in English and mathematics as those enrolled in four-year programs at the other two colleges.

The vocational and technical courses, which range from aviation mechanics to embalming to secretarial science, will be offered by the same faculty departments that teach the more standard university fare of literature, history, physics, and business administration.

"There's confusion and skepticism and near despair," said Julius Mack, dean of Federal City's School of Natural Sciences. "They're trying to make a single university that is supposed to be everthing to everybody when we've had three institutions for three different needs.

"A university cannot just be legislated or mandated," he continued. "It must be developed. You cannot consider a university as a big company with faculty as hired hands and students as products."

The 17 trustees, appointed by the Washington's mayor and City Council, say they are trying to put together a university that will be a great one.

"We want this to be the best university in the country," said trustee Brenda Belton, "not only in this country, but in the world." Then she added:

"Any time you have different groups and have change, then people will fear it because they have to change to what they do."

Ronald Brown, chairman of the university trustees, says that many of the Federal City opponents of the merger plan have "a very elitist view of education. They assume that someone who is talking a vocational course is unable to take the kind of courses they offer."

Brown, a 35-year-old lawyer who heads the Urban League's Washington office, added: "There's nothing more political in this country than educational institutions and putting three of them together is extremely political. What happens to individual positions under consolidation? If there are three department heads now (in many subjects), there will be only one, so who will it be?"

The stakes in the controversy are substantial for the new university being created by the merger will have about 14,000 students, 2,200 employees (including about 725 full-time faculty members), and an annual budget of $51 million. About $40 million comes from the D.C. government, about $10 million from the federal grants, and only about $1 million from student tuition payments and fees, which at $135 per student for a full load of courses are among the very lowest in the country. (By comparison, students pay about $3,000 a year tuition at many private universities, $778 at the University of Maryland, and $430 at Prince George's Community College).

Construction plans for the university total about $270 million, of which $84 million has already been appropriated and $56.7 million is in next year's city budget. So far the money has built two large, unusually designed buildings for Washington Technical Institute - with movable partitions, outside escalators, and 24-hour clocks - at Van-Ness Street and Connecticut Avenue, NW.

It has also cleared and assembled the land downtown - on two blocks north of Mount Vernon Square for a permanent campus for Federal City College, which is still scattered in 15 old office buildings.

Amid the rhetoric, the issues involved in the merger are serious and complex:

How much emphasis should be placed on vocational and technical courses that lead to specific jobs in skilled trades or middle-level management?

How much stress should be placed with a high arts program that could lead students on to graduate school or to managerial positions.

Since the colleges take anyone with a high school diploma, how much effort should diploma, how much effort should go into remedial work, which many students clearly need?

How much stress should be put on advanced courses and graduate-level programs that attract bright students and a prestigious faculty?

Intertwined with these questions is another, highly emotional one: What type of education is best for blacks, who make up about 95 per cent of the students at the three colleges?

At Federal City many of those stressing liberal arts say the argument now is similar to the one 80 years ago between Brooker T. Washington, who advocated "industrial education" for blacks, and W.E.B. DuBois, who pushed for rigorous university training for the most "talented tenth" of black students.

"Board Chairman Brown said that dispute is outdated.

"The university we are trying to create has to provide the maximun number of options to the largest number of people," Brown said. "I don't think liberal arts and technical education are mutually exclusive."

Brown added that public universities in other states, which are mostly white, offer a range of technical courses as well as liberal arts ones.

Another issue in the merger is how much emphasis university courses and programs should place on blacks. At Federal City the black emphasis is strong; it is much less so at D.C. Teachers and WTI.

For example, in Federal City's required freshman English course every novel on the reading list is by a black author. At WTI and DCTC the emphasis in freshman English is heavily on grammar and basic composition, and the books used for teaching it are by both whites and blacks. Comimg up with one basic course in a consolidated English department may well be difficult.

In addition to the policy and ideological studies, there are serious bread-and-butter matters involved in the merger.

The standard teaching load varies widely at the three colleges: 9 hours per week at Federal City (which is common at universities), 12 hours a week at D.C. Teachers College and 15 hours per week at WTI (which is usual in junior colleges).

At a meeting on Thursday the trustees are scheduled to vote on a proposal to set the standard load at 15 hours of classroom teaching per week, a plan that has drawn opposition at Federal City.

"If it's just remedial work we're supposed to do, that's pretty much a canned thing and quite routine, and the heavy teaching load would be well and fine," said David Lewis a professor of history at Federal City who has published three major books, including a history of the District of Columbia. "But if we want to do more than that - some research and writing some more advanced courses, we won't have the time. With that sort of teaching load, we would be locking ourselves in to a very limited appeal."

The policy proposal before the trustees also sets pension plan contributions at the same level they have been at Washington Tech, rather than at the more generous ones at Federal City and DCTC.

Although his name wasn't mentioned at the trustees' public hearings on the merger last month, much of the debate over the merger plan centers on one man: Cleveland Dennard, the president of Washington Technical Institute.

A forceful administrator, Dennard has dominated WTI since it opened in 1968, shaping most of its program and even the design of its buildings. He now works in a glass-enclosed office with a large African-style shield and a computer terminal nearby. His friends range from leaders of the Washington Board of Trade to Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi, an outspoken critic of South African apartheid.

But to many on his faculty Dennard is regarded as high-handed and anti-intellectual, preoccupied with management rather than teaching. In private, they criticize him for being dictatorial and for running the college the same way that he ran a vocational high school in Atlanta. But others on the faculty praise Dennard warmly, and no one critizes him in public, for fear, the critics, of losing their jobs.

In January, the trustees appointed Dennard to take charge of planning the merger along with Wendell P. Russell, who has served as president of both Federal City and D.C. Teaching College since 1974.

Dennard is seen by both trustees and faculty members as much the stronger of the two. He is also widely regarded as the probable president of the new university, a choice the trustees now are planning to make in May.

"It looks like they're trying to put us into a Mickey Mouse straight-jacket from WTI," professor Lewis remarked, "and reduce the university to a place for embalming. That's quite necessary in its sphere, but it shouldn't become the basis for higher education in the District."

In an interview, Dennard stronly denied trying to downgrade liberal arts in the new university and said, "It's just a waste of time to have a great debate."

"Any consideration of parochial innuendo between elitism and practicality is an unproductive exercise," he added. "It can only polarize whites and blacks and different economic classes within the black community."

Dennard said he hoped the new courses being planned with WTI's federal grant will be used at the new university, but he said the decision would be made by faculty members, not imposed by administrators.

"The faculty will have to come to grips with it after the logistics (of merging) are taken care of," Dennard said.