GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY'S decision to concentrate the resources of its graduate school is as wise as it is courageous. Shutting down graduate programs is a painful expedient. But the university is clearly right to move toward a smaller number of stronger departments.

Georgetown is setting a precedent that might usefully be followed by other universities here in Washington. Historically, each of the universities--with the single exception of the youngest, the University of the District of Columbia--was designed by its ambitious founders on a grand scale, with the intention that it might become a truly national institution. But Washington was not a commercial city, and never generated the wealth on which great private universities elsewhere were built.

As long ago as the 1960s, the Consortium of Universities began calling attention to the duplication of small and undernourished graduate programs among the unviersities here. The case for consolidation was apparent, especially among the foreign languages. In that time of academic expansion, that advice got short shrift. But with the growing financial constraints of the late 1970s, all the old questions returned more urgent than ever.

Last March several academic organization, including the National Academy of Sciences, published an evaluation of graduate programs across the country; the rankings must have given further momentum to Georgetown's plans. They showed that there were some very respectable graduate programs among the universities here, but there were also some very low on the list.

Physics, for example, is a subject of great intellectual importance. But it is not clear there is any compelling need for each of five universities, within a radius of two miles, to try to teach it at the graduate level and carry the enormous costs of the laboratories that good programs require. Georgetown's physics department has never been strong, and the university has now decided to drop it from the graduate school--along with accounting and six foreign languages. That will enable the university to improve its stronger programs, to the benefit of students and teaching standards generally.

The quality of the universities in and around Washington has risen substantially over the past couple of decades. Georgetown is now providing leadership, at a time when no large new sources of funds are in sight, in continuing that progress. That is no small contribution to Washington, for there is no American city where educational attainments do more to set the course of people's lives.