Feel the need for a master's degree? You could run over to Wisconsin Avenue NW just below Calvert Street and attend Central Michigan University.

Or the University of Oklahoma at the Pentagon.

Or the University of Southern California on 10th Street NW, opposite Ford's theatre.

Or the University of Northern Colorado at Fairfax High School.

These universities and others up to a continent away are operating graduate and sometimes undergraduate degree programs here with thousands of students. In many cases, the bulk of the tuition costs are paid by the federal government and the classes take place on federal installations. Some of the individual two- and three-credit courses can be completed with only seven or eight classes meetings at night and on weekends.

Central Michigan, a state university whose campus is in Mt. Pleasant, Mich., is the giant among these out-of-town schools. Since 1972, when it moved in here, it has grown rapidly to become one of the major institutions of higher learning in this region. Accordiing to Dr. Norman Somers, an official at the home campus, it has more than 2,000 students in 14 teaching sites in the District, northern Virginia and Maryland, with virtually all courses given nights and weekends.

Last year, it awarded more than 500 master's degrees in management and supervision to students in the Washington area and about the same number the year before. Educational officials here estimate the number of degrees it awarded in this one narrow area may have equalled or exceeded the total for this subject by all other colleges in the region.

What are all these faraway universities doing here?

Somers and other educators say operations like CMU's in the Washington area are only a small part of an educational revolution that has taken place in recent decades. Off-campus programs are serving vast numbers of people beyond regular school age who want to continue their education and obtain degrees but have jobs, children and other responsibilities and therefore can't attend traditional campuses.

CMU is operating in the Washington area to "serve a clientele that is not served by other institutions in the area," Somers said. He said colleges put programs into service bases at the invitation of the military which wants men to upgrade skills.

But Dr. George Arnstein, a Veterans Administration official and member of the District of Columbia Educational Institution Licensure Commission, believes there is more to the huge growth of off-campus programs nationwide than a simple desire for learning.

Arnstein believes a disease called "credentialism" has overtaken the nation.

He defines it as "a pursuit of degrees without much attention to educational content and often without standards."

In today's society, having a degree, especially an advanced degree, is a ticket to better jobs, promotion and better pay. In District of Columbia public schools, for example, a teacher starting with 15 hours of graduate credits gets about $700 higher annual pay than one who has only a B.A. And for a PhD., the differential is about $2,500.

An advanced degree helps in the armed forces too. One educator told The Washington Post that an officer at Andrews Air Force Base had told him that in many parts of the service, an officer without a M.A. is a bad bet for promotion.

Arnstein said this area is "a good market" because of the high concentration of military and government jobs where an advanced degree is a steppingstone to promotion.

Under these conditions, Arnstein said, it is natural that some people will be rushing to get degrees, not really caring how much they learn. And, without pointing the finger at any institution, Arnstein said some colleges will be willing to give people shortcuts to obtaining degrees.

This is particularly true, some educators say, because off-campus programs are one of the few potential "profit centers" available to a university. The Pentagon will pay up to 75 percent of the tuition and fees for armed forces members attending classes at an operation invited to set up shop on a military base. The GI Bill can also be used.

There are other factors that can make an off-campus program a moneymaker, according to Jerold Roschwalb, director of governmental relations of the National Association of State Universities and Land Grant Colleges.

The ratio of students to teachers is usually high. The off-campus classes are usually taught by part-time teachers who get $1,000 or $2,000 a course, if that much, and no fringe benefits. Rent for public buildings or churches or military facilities to hold classes is often free or very low. Some college administrators in the Northeast estimate a well-run program can realize "a modest surplus" (the word "profit" is never spoken on campus) of perhaps one-third of gross off-campus revenues.

Arnstein said, "Accredited colleges are trying to tender a genuine service, but I'm firmly persuaded that all these out-of-state institutions are here because they are making a profit or expect to."

Somers strongly disagreed. He said CMU takes in about $5.5 million gross annually from its off-campus operations nationwide and at overseas bases, but costs are about the same as at the campus and it just about breaks even off-campus programs, which it is required to do under Michigan law. He said about 10 percent of the gross goes back to the Michigan campus to cover overhead and other indirect costs on the home campus attributable to the off-campus programs.

Arnstein, however, is far from an isolated voice in criticizing off-campus programs. In 1977, Texas Commissioner of Higher Education Kenneth H. Ashworth wrote, "Many college and university programs offered on military bases are so poor that they would be classified as diploma mills were they subject to close educational scrutiny . . .. Degree programs by the hundreds are currently taught far from parent campuses by schools less concerned with quality than with income." Harvard Prof. Stephen K. Bailey, in a study of military base programs, expressed deep concern about "galloping shoddiness" and said some "duly accredited American colleges and universities . . . are presently selling academic credentials at cut rates in an increasingly cut-throat marketplace."

In the national capital area, CMU appears to be by far the biggest off-campus operation run by an out-of-area institution, although George Washington, the University of Maryland and other local institutions run off-campus programs, too. Maryland's includes an astonishing 16,000 persons a semester at European and Far Eastern military bases.

But CMU is not the only university that has reached into the Washington area. Southern Illinois University of Carbondale, Ill., runs a B.S. program in health services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center with about 120 students paying $98 per credit. SIU's Edwardsville branch offers a master's degree in business at Bolling Air Force Base. The University of Northern Colorado, according to its office here, has an M.A. program (each course costs $284) that holds classes in Fairfax High School. The University of Oklahoma, which offers graduate programs in 27 locations worldwide, gives courses at the Pentagon leading to the M.B.A. and other degrees. A student can earn two credit hours in a week by attending a class Monday through Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and all day Saturday and Sunday.

USC offers an M.A. in systems management at the Pentagon, charging $531 for each three-credit course, with 100 or more students. It also has a graduate school of public administration in the District on 10th Street. Nova University of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., operates a doctoral program at the Quality and Holiday inns at Crystal City in Virginia. Goddard College of Vermont offers bachelor's and master's degrees at several locations in the District.

These programs differ greatly in quality. USC's graduate school of public administration, for example, has purchased its own building, has a number of tenured full-time faculty members and is developing a library. Some of the others here lack all three of these features.

Some of the features of the Central Michigan system here are rather controversial and led Arnstein and colleagues on the licensure commission to grant it only a provisional license to operate in the District.

Others are characteristic of off-campus programs nationwide and have been little problem. Like most off-campus operations, CMU gives classes in public buildings and bases like Bolling Ft. Myer, Walter Reed, Andres, the Library of Congress, the National Institutes of Health and office buildings in various parts of the area.

CMU requires 30 credit hours for a master's degree, similar to many traditional institutions and charges $80 a credit, a bit less than a student would pay at its home campus.

But of the 30 credits, up to 10 can be earned through "experiential learning." Basically, this means the university will grant a student up to 10 hours of credit for work or other experience before enrollment, for example a job in data processing or personnel work, if he can show it provided some of the management skills being taught in the master's program. He or she is charged $25 for an evaluation and then $10 for each credit granted.

Like many off-campus courses, CMU's do not require 16 or 18 weeks of attendance. One can complete a three-credit course in about a month by attending seven four-hour evening sessions and one eight-hour weekend session, a total of 36 hours of student-teacher contact. Somers said this is nearly as many hours of contact as a student at a traditional campus would have if he attended a course three hours a week for 16 weeks and missed a day or two for holidays.

CMU (and many of the other out-of-town universities) also has no library in this area. Instead, any student can call the Michigan home campus free on a WATS line, ask to borrow a book and have it mailed him first-class. For its nationwide operations, phone charges alone for this service cost $250,000 a year, Somers said. The D.C. areas's rich public library resources are also available to students, Somers indicated.

Until recently, CMU had no full-time faculty in the area. Teachers were mainly regular faculty members from George Washington, Maryland, Howard and other local universities, or local experts on various subjects, hired to teach one or two courses at CMU.

The D.C. commission raised questions about the lack of full-time faculty and library resources and about the "experiential learning" credits. But it judged that the part-time faculty met professional qualifications, that financing was sufficient to sustain CMU's operations here and that the program had an adequate administrative structure. On that basis it granted a provisional license to operate. (Each jurisdiction has its own rules.) CMU has since hired five full-time faculty, Somers said.

"All those operating in D.C. with a D.C. license we have looked at and are satisfied they meet the minimum standards," Arnstein said. "We don't say excellent, we don't say good. We say they meet the minimum standards." He added that while he believes many of the out-of-state institutions are here to make money, "that's not incompatible with rendering a service."

Whether Arnstein's fears about credentialism and the off-campus movement are fully justified or not, there is no doubt credentialism exists.

One teacher in a special summer program for teachers seeking to obtain graduate credits told this story: On the first day of class, students complained that the requirement for a big term paper was too burdensome in a two-week course. A few days later they objected to having a final exam. Finally, they complained that traveling to class at night was too burdensome. How about just letting them read the books and not attend class? With that, she put her foot down and said no.