"To be very honest," Jimmie Dildy said, "it was necessary to have a doctorate to get ahead. I wanted to get one without spending too much [money] and I just couldn't afford to take the time off."

The solution for Dildy, a professor of business technology at Prince George's Community College was to enroll in the PhD program at Laurence University, a small college whose headquarters is in an apartment building in Santa Barbara, Calif.

Laurences students, like those at more traditional universities, must write a dissertation. But unlike most conventional doctoral programs, there are no comprehensive examinations (which often take 12 to 18 hours spread over several days), no proficiency tests in foreign languages or statistics, and no requirement that students attend classes on campus for at least a year.

Indeed, Laurence students go to classes in Santa Barbara for only three weeks - either in the summer or during school vacations.

They also must read a series of 21 textbooks and for each one mail in a written analysis that contains extensive excerpts or outlines, lists of the main "learnings," and point-by-point commentaries.

There are three, three-hour examinations with essay-type questions, one after each seven textbooks.$&(WORD ILLEGIBLE The exams are taken, under supervision, near a student's home and are mailed to Santa Barbara to be corrected.

Most Laurence students receive their doctoral degrees in 18 to 24 months, while continuing to hold regular jobs, University Chancellor Lester Sands said.

By contrast, at the University of Maryland, whose requirements are similar to those of most major American universities, it takes at least three years to receive a doctorate - even with full-time study. Students must spend at least one year on campus, and pass a six-hour qualifying exam as well as write a thesis and pass comprehensive written and oral tests.

They must receive honor grades in 16 graduate-level courses of 16 weeks apiece.

For most Maryland students, officials said, the doctorate takes five to seven years to complete, and about half of those who start never finish.

The past decade has seen the establishment of more than a dozen universities that, like Laurnece, provide a shortcut to the traditional path to the doctorate.

Although all the nontraditional programs share the characteristics of reduced time and fewer examinations, individually they vary greatly.

One school, Pacific Western University of Encino, Calif., accepts work experience, courses taken elsewhere, and reports on books that students have written previously (along with a brief update), as a substitute for traditional courses, examinations and dissertations. It has no classes or examinations of its own.

In most other nontraditional programs the usual requirements are scaled back less severely, but students are often given credit for one-the-job experience or submit dissertations analyzing aspects of their regular jobs rather than conducting original research.

Only one such program, Nova University of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been accredited by a recognized agency. But the holders of the nontraditional doctorates - many of them public school administrators or junior college faculty - often have been able to use their degrees to win higher pay and promotions as well as prestige.In Washington, for example, a principal with a doctoral degree earns about $1,000 more a year than a principal with a master's.

Predictably, the new doctorates have stirred sharp debate within the academic community.

"It's pretty hard to call something a doctorate when it's nontraditional," said Kenneth Ashworth, commissioner of the Texas College Coordinating Board. "They might be worthwhile for the people who take them. But don't call them doctorates. They're just not what a doctorate is supposed to be."

"These programs are causing such a stir because they're very threatening to traditional institutions," rejoined Harold Hodgkinson, former director of the National Institute for Education who now serves as chairman of the academic policy board for Walden University, a nontraditional college based in Naples, Fla.

"These students are spending only a month with us [at Walden]," Hodgkinson continued, "and their performance on dissertations is identical [to traditional schools]...I don't think there is only one way to certify academic quality."

Whatever their merits, their impact has been substantial.

The largest of them, Nova, now awards far more doctorates in education than any other university in the country. Its part-time professors, some of them nationally recognized authorities, fly around the country giving classes of students in 22 states, including Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia.

In 1976 and 1977, the latest years for which full data is available, Nova awarded 791 doctorates in education, according to federal statistics, compared to 434 awarded by Columbia University Teachers College, one of the nation's foremost universities, whi Nova also has awarded 133 doctorates of public administration through a similar program, which it stresses is for "practitioners" rather than researchers.

Since 1972, Walden has awarded 707 PhD degrees in "social and educational change." Laurence has awarded about 150 doctorates in education since 1973.

In the Washington area, holders of doctorates from Nova, Laurence, Walden, and other nontraditional universities, such as Heed in Florida and the University of Central Arizona, can be found in local government and federal agencies as well as school systems and universities.

They include Charles Jackson, an assistant school superintendent in Alexandria, and Andrew Jenkins, an assistant superintendent in Washington, both of whom were graduated from Nova; William Rumsey, director of the D.C. Recreation Department, whose degree comes from National Christian University of Richardson, Tex., which was closed by a state court order in 1976; and Anna Laney, associate dean of business at the University of the District of Columbia, and Richard Bassler, a professor at American University, whose degrees are from Laurence.

Bassler, head of the computer and information systems division at American, said he went to Laurence to avoid the "Mickey Mouse" rules of conventional doctorate programs.

"I had 25 years experience," said Bassler, a retired Air Force colonel, "and these [other] programs gave it no value at all. They'd make me do what the kidlings do, and that didn't sit well. So I enrolled in Laurence and we worked our butts off, and I earned my degree."

The range of nontraditional programs is wide, said George Arnstein, education consultant for the Veterans Administration, from "shady operators" to "reputable efforts" to meet new demands;.

At one end of the spectrum there are straight "diploma mills," he said, which sell their degrees for a price with no academic work required.

The state that has most of them, Arnstein said, is California, whose education licensing law permits anyone to operate a university as long as full records are filed with the state government along with an affidavit that the institution has $50,000 in assets.

This category of state "authorized institution," which does not require any program review by state officials, also is used by several colleges that issue degrees - up to the doctorate - based on courses taken elsewhere and "life experience."

One of these is Pacific Western University.

"We literally are alternative education," the school's dean of admissions, R. Frank Sutter, said in a telephone interview.

"We don't have any classes," Sutter said. "We don't teach anything. But if somebody can prove to us that they have completed the work or have the experience then we can convert that into academic credit and a degree.... We don't take anybody. We're not trying to create something that isn't there. But we are attempting to recognize people who are eminently qualified for a degree."

Academic credit is assigned according to a table of "experimental credit evaluations." For a doctorate, students can submit a book or project analysis, Sutter said, and also must have a high level of professional experience.

The cost of the doctorate from Pacific Western is $1,725, he said, and it usually is awarded in five to seven months. During the past three years, he said, about 160 persons have received the degree.

The programs at all the other nontraditional universities surveyed take considerably more time and involve some formal teaching and testing, although much less than for conventional doctorates.

At Nova, for example, students seeking a doctor of education degree must attend a fixed cycle of 24 Saturday classes spread over three years and two eight-day summer institutes, one of which is now being held at the Capital Hilton Hotel. They also write three papers called "practicums" which describe "an action taken to improve an educational system."

Although each university stresses its uniqueness, most have several factors in common:

Part-time students, usually in their 30s or 40s who already hold master's degrees.

Part-time faculty members, who usually hold positions at traditional unviersities or have retired from them. In some programs, such as Laurence, students usually find faculty advisers near their homes.

Less time in class. For example, each course required for Nova's educational doctorates meets one Saturday a month for three months with a different professor for each session. The total amount of class time - about 24 hours - compares to 39 hours for courses carr-ing the same amount of credit at George Washington University.

Small libraries and classroom buildings or none at all. Participants use public libraries or those of other universities for research. Classes are held in rented space - usually schools, universities, motels or churches.

Academic credit for experience.

Little academic selectivity in admissions. None of the programs require applicants to take national tests such as the Graduate Record Examination. To be admitted, students usually must have master's degrees (though not always) and sometimes must already hold an administrative or academic job.

"They're top-grade people to begin with," said Sands, the chancellor of Laurence. "There's an element of self-selection involved."

Tuition for a full doctorate is $3,600 at Laurnece and $6,900 at Nova. For in-state residents tuition is $3,000 for the doctoral degree at the University of Maryland, but out-of-staters pay $5,400, and at George Washington University, a private institution, it comes to $9,200.

Although the nontraditional programs have been successful in attracting students, they have had difficulty gaining academic recognition.

Nova, the only one with full accreditation by a regional accrediting association, has also had problems.The university now conducts doctoral classes in 22 states with almost 1,700 students. But its classes have been barred or curtailed in four states, including Michigan and North Carolina, where Nova is suing to be allowed to operate.

In 1977, Nova failed to receive a license to offer doctoral programs in the District of Columbia although it did win approval for a masters degree program. The action was taken by the board of trustees of the University of the District of Columbia after a group of evaluators, including Arnstein and Norman Beckman, then a top officer of the Library of Congress, concluded that Nova's scholarly and academic standards "[fell] short of commonly recognized expectations [for the doctorate degree]."

The programs have continued to operate here since then without a license but no action has been taken to stop them.

Last month Nova was turned down in a bid to have its doctorate for educational administrators accredited by the National Association for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, which reviews teacher education programs throughout the country. The association concluded that Nova's goals were "so general in nature as to be virtually impossible to measure" and said that student-faculty contact and research facilities were too limited.

Nova President Abram Fischler said some of Nova's difficulties have come from "political pressures...to prevent an out-of-state institution moving into territory being worked by a state institution already." CAPTION: Picture, VA consultant George Arnstein finds programs range from shady to reputable, By James A. Parcell - The Washington Post