When Norvel Bradshaw started Federal City College in 1969 he had already been a high school drop-out, an Air Force enlisted man and a clerk at Washington's main post office for four years.

He stayed at the post office five years more while he pushed his way through the college's program in accounting. In the mornings Bradshaw went to classes. From 3:30 p.m. to midnight he sorted mail. Bradshaw said he often did homework in the post office bathroom while his friends in the sorting room kept an eye out fot the supervisors.

Now Bradshaw has a bachelors degree and a job as a systems accountant for the Navy Department. He seems well on his way to the white-collar life he wants, although he still has not taken the exam to becaome a certified public accountant.

"Sure, it was rough," Bradshaw recalled last week. "But going to college was something I wanted to do, and I probably couldn't have done it withour Federal City."

For Jane Brown (not her real name) going to college was also rough - and painfully disappointing Brown had been a hospital orderly and nursing assistant for about five years when she enrolled at Washinton Technical Institute to try to become a nurse.

Three years later she graduated. She worked as a nurse for several months , while waiting to take her licensing exam, but she failed the test. Now she is working as a nursing assistant, although she plans to take the exam again.

"It takes a lot out of you," she said. "Working so hard, being so proud (about graduating) and then having to go back to what you were before. It makes me wonder what I learned."

Since they opened in 1968, Washington's two low-cost public colleges - Federal City College and Washington Technical Institute - have awarded bachelors and associate degrees to about 5,500 students.

No comprehensive survey of what the graduates are doing has been completed. But for most of them, college officials say, the degrees have brought major improvements in their lives, with new careers and promotions, most often in the federal and District governments.

For some, though there have been disappointments. Last year about two-thirds of the nursing graduates at both WTI and Federal City failed the licensing exam, about double the failure rate nationwide. In other fields, particularly in electronics and other technical subjects taught at WTI, graduates often have had to take jobs much less advanced than the ones they thought they were trained for.

"The expectations of these students are far out of line with their competence and experience," said the personnel manager, for one local company, who asked not to be named.

"The college had raised the expectation level of these kids just incredibly," she continued. "Some of them had great grades, but they just didn't know what they were talking about."

In August Federal City College and WTI will merge, with Washington's third low-cost public college, D.C. Teachers College, to form a new University of the District of Columbia.

Unlike the other two schools, D.C. Teachers can trace its history back to 1851. Until the late 1960s it was a small, tuition-free college controlled by the D.C. school board, sending nearly all graduates to teach in D.C. public schools.

The university will have about 13,000 students, 2,200 employees (including about 725 faculty members) and an annual budget of $51 million, about 98 per cent of it from the D.C. and federal governments. Its tuition will be exceptionally low, $135 a year.

Despite a long search, the new university still does not have a president. Randolph Bromery, the man the trustees picked for the job turned it down last week. Most faculty members believe its direction also has not been clearly defined, although trustees have decided to keep the open admissions policy which has powerfully shaped the three existing colleges.

Under the policy, the colleges have admitted all high school graduates, regardless of grades or test scores, They have helped those who dropped out to get high school equivalency diplomas.

At Federal City, for example, about 15 per cent of thestudents are former dropouts like Bradshaw.

D.C. Teachers traditionally chose the best students it could find but over the past four years, as its enrollment has dwindled, it too has adopted an open admissions policy.

Most of the students have come from Washington's public high schools, and like the polulation of Washington schools, more than 90 per cent are black. According to guidance counselors at several schools, their best high school graduates, understandably, go to the most prestigious colleges, a large group in the upper half of the class goes to Howard University, while most of those going to the three public colleges are in the middle or bottom part of the class.

In addition, the public colleges have a large number of students in their late 20s, many of them veterans. But over the past three years the proportion of older students, has declined. Also, about 10 per cent of the students have been foreigners, mostly from Africa and the Caribbean.

"Because of upen admissions we are taking a lot of students who wouldn't be going to college if we didn't exist," said Peter Koper, an assistant professor in the communications department at Federal City. "Many of them have slid through high school without learning very much. It's a gamble, but we are giving people a chance who would have been shut out."

Actually, open admissions isn't new and it isn't unique to Washington. It long was the policy at most big state universities in the South and Mid-west. A few continue it, notably Ohio State and the University of Kansas. But over the past 20 years open admissions has become most widely used at two-year community colleges.

However, whole the big Midwest universities traditionally allowed all comers to take freshman courses, but quickly sent home those who didn't pass, WTI and Federal City have allowed students to take basic courses, fail them and then try and try again.

Failures are called "repeats" on grade reports, and students areallowed to repear courses indefinitely until they can pass. Also, the colleges permit students to withdraw from courses late in the term rather than get a failing grade.

Until this past year, students were allowed to remain in college and receive financial aid regardless fo academic records.

Indeed, for many students financial aid has been a strong incentive to stay.

Under the federal program of basic education opportunity grants (BEOGs), which have a needs test but no academic requirements, about 3,600 students at the three city colleges received aid this year, averaging about $1,300 each.

In addition, about 2,500 students received GI Bill benefits, which range from $292 a month for an unmarried veteran to $396 a month - or $3,564 per school year - for a veteran with a wife and a child.

The number of veterans, however was down by about a third from a year earlier because of changes Congress voted in eligibility requirements and also because of Veterans Administration audits which found that almost half the veterans at WTI and Federal City had been collecting money for courses they had dropped or were repeating.

This spring WTI strictly enforced probation rules for the first time. It found that about 40 per cent of the students were on academic probation and had to take fewer courses and in a few cases drop out. However, when enrollment fell about 20 per cent below the number provided for in the budget, the college held a special late legistration to try to make up the difference.

Still, the stricter rules have led to improvements.

"It used to be that half the students in a class would dissappear by mid-term," said Eli Rosenfield, an assistant professor of mathematics. "Now attendance is much better."

The basic reason for the liberal policy on failures and repeats, officials said, was that so many students come to the colleges with serious academoc problems.

Exactly how serious thay are is unknown because the colleges require no standardized tests.

However, at D.C. Teachers College, 80 per cent of last fall's freshmen scored so low on a placement exam that they were required to take a remedial course. Michael Hall, chairman of the college's math department, said a few students "literally do not know their multiplication tables." Many others, he said multiply and divide so slowly that "the calculations take too long to be useful."

At Federal City and WTI professors report similar problems, and basic math courses start with reviews of math concepts that usually are taught in junior high school.

In English, professors at all three colleges say most freshmen have serious problems with grammar and sentence structure, and in some cases with reading. None of the basic English courses is called remedial, even though some at WTI are elementary-grammar reviews with fill-in-the-blanks type tests.

"Quite a few of the students work hard, and they want a good education," said one English professor at Federal City, "but the skill level they start with is so low. Sometimes you have a problem remembering that this is probably the ninth grade level, and you have to explain things simply and repeat them.

"Then you have to decide what standards to use in grading. Are you going to fail everyone? Obviously, you can't do that, so you try to remember your standards, and apply them as strictly as you can."

Still, the proportion who fail basic courses is high. At FederalCity, for example, one-third of the students taking freshman English failed last fall, and another 15 per cent took incompletes in the course or withdrew.

At D.C. Teachers about 40 per cent failed freshman English, while at WTI, where grades are slightly higher than at the other two schools, 21 per cent failed.

Failure and withdrawal rates were even greater in basic mathematics courses.

As a result, the size of most upper-level courses is small, about 10 students or less. This spring several English literature courses at Federal City and D.C. Teachers had only six students enrolled. Some math, physics and economics courses had only four or five.

Professors says their reading lists, tests and required papers are comparable to the level of work in many more-established universities, but few students take them.

Because so many students fail or drop out, the proportion that graduates had been low. At Washington Technical Institute, according to a report last year, about 22 per cent of full-time students complete two-year programs. The nationwide graduation rate for community colleges is about 40 per cent.

Federal City College has published no figures on percentage of entering students who eventually graduate, but in the four classes that entered before 1972 about 18 per cent had received diplomas by last winter.

Nationally, the graduation rate at four-year colleges is about 70 per cent. However, at other open admission universities it has been about 35 to 45 per cent.

Because of the small classes and relatively high salaries for faculty members, the cost of operating Washington's public colleges is high. In 1976, according to a study by the National Institute of Education, the D.C. government spent about $4,000 per student at public colleges - almost double the national average of $2.216. The only state that spent more, NIE calculated, was Alaska