After six years of unprecedented growth and expansion, women's sports programs in colleges and public schools throughout the Washington area and the nation appear to have reached a plateau, with little or no growth projected over the next several years.

From a virtual wasteland in the early 1970s, when women's sports received only the scantiest institutional support and female athletes sold cakes and cookies to raise money for uniforms and equipment, scholastic and collegiate sports opportunities for women have improved dramatically. Since then women's sports budgets at many institutions have undergone four- and five-fold increases and top female athletes in high school are the subjects of fierce and aggressive recruiting battles by college coaches.

Largely the result of Title IX, the federal legislation prohibiting sexual discrimination in federally assisted activities in schools and colleges, the boom in women's sports has seen athletic opportunites for women soar. Less than a decade ago, there were virtually no athletic scholarships for women, but now there are 10,000 women's athletic scholarships awarded annually, according to estimates by the San Franciso-based Women's Sports Foundation.

At the University of the District of Columbia, to cite one example, the women's basketball budget -- $86,900 -- now is slightly more than the men's, and the program is being even further upgraded next year to include such traditionally strong opponents as Penn State.

But administrators, athletic directors and coaches familiar with women's sports feel the period of expansion has ended. Budget constraints, if nothing else, will make future expansion difficult, if not impossible, they say.

"We're not going back to being barefoot in the kitchen, but we're not going to see the growth continuing, either," says Margot Polivy, the lawyer for the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

"I think it's going to be a real battle top hang onto what we've already got," says Jim Kehoe, the director of athletics at the University of Maryland, who is retiring Aug. 1. "Most schools now are fighting like mad to hang onto what they've got."

Bob Gill, curriculum specialist for physical education and athletics for Arlington's public schools, says the surge of interest in girls' sports has strained his system's coaching capacities to the limit. "Our real difficulty now is staffing, finding enough coaches. We have a declining enrollment now, but we have twice as many kids participating in athletics, and that's maily because we have so many more girls. We're reducing our teaching staff, but at the same time we're trying to find more coaches."

At Howard University, Sandra Norell-Thomas, one of the administrators of women's sports, says, "Because of the economy at this time, we just don't envision adding any more sports. Whenever you add another sport, it costs money, coaching, uniforms, equipment."

While the rise in women's sports opportunities over the last few years is generally well documented, many supporters of women's right's contend that much more needs to be done in the area of women's athletics and that women still lag far behind men.

That was the central conclusion of a study called "More Hurdles to Clear" issued last July by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Exhaustive state-by-state analyses of spending patterns, participation, quality of coaching and availability of equipment and facilities for women's sports showed dramatic advances in all areas. But the study also noted that the women had failed to achieve parity with men in almost every category.

"Things have gone from absolutley horrendous to only very bad," says Bernice R. Sandler, director of the Association of American Colleges' Project on the Status and Education of Women.

Nevertheless, Sandler observes, the very existence of Title IX "is a good example of how having a law in place leads to a voluntary change. The vast majority of institutions have not made all the changes we would like, but they have made some changes."

Just last month U.S. Secreatry of Education Terrel H. Bell outlined what he called a new federal policy for enforcing Title XI sex-discrimination complaints against educational istitutions. In settling a complaint against the University of Akron, the first federally approved Title XI settlement since enactment of the legislation nine years ago, Bell announced that it would be department policy in the future to look for reasonable compliance over a period of time, rather than all at once.

"We are going to listen to what the institution is doing to resolve discrimination and take that into account. I am certain that the final result will be more effective and entail less conflict," said Bell. The settlement at Akron called for an increase in scholarship aid to women, the additon of women's track and cross-country teams in 1981-1982 and the upgrading of four other women's teams to a higher level of competition in 1982-82.

Leaders in the women's sports movement remain skeptical, however, noting there are still unresolved Title XI complaints pending against 80 colleges. "We have an administration that does not seem to have dedicated itself to the enforecment of civil rights. It's a troublesome message," says Polivy of the AIAW.

Moreover, a variety of pending lawsuits continues to muddy further the outlook for women's sports. In a widely publicized Michigan case earlier this year, a federal judge held that only those activities receiving direct federal funding fell under the scope of Title IX.

If upheld on appeal, that decision wuld have broad impact, but most legal experts doubt the ruling will survive appellate scrutiny.

In the meantime, there are individual lawsuits pending against about a dozen institutions over a variety of alleged discriminatory practices. Among the more significant is a wide-ranging suit against Temple University brought by 11 female students with the support of the Women's Rights Project of the Center for Law and Social Policy in Washington.

Among the complaints in the suit are discriminatin against women athletes in the use of practice facilities, travel and per diem allowances, coaching, free loan of textbooks and the supply of new uniforms. One student, who serves as an assistant coach for the men's novice crew team, said the university discriminates against her by failing to provide a women's crew team despite requests from several women.

George Ingram, a vice president of the university, denied that women athletes are discriminated against at Temple. "In a period of austere finances, no other program has grown as much as women's sports," he said. From the years 1975-76 to 1979-80, he said, the budget for women's sports rose 216 percent, from $147,000 to $465,000. The increase in the men's budget in that period was only 23 percent, but with total expenditures of $1.25 million for 1979-80, it was still well ahead of the women's.

Complicating the women's sports outlook at the college level even further is the running dispute for power and control between the AIAW and NCAA. At its annual convention in January the NCAA voted to include women on its policy-making boards and to sponsor national championships in women's sports beginning next fall, triggering concerns in the women's organization that its own influence on the women's sports scene would begin to diminish rapidly.

"The NCAA action to initiate women's national championships will most likely result in the death of AIAW," says Christine Grant, women's athletic director at the University of Iowa and a former president of AIAW.

Essentially, says Grant, the NCAA championships will duplicate those already offered under AIAW sponsorship. But since the rich and powerful NCAA can reimburse institutions for travel expenses to and from championship contests, it's expected most of the top women's teams will opt for the Ncaa contests over those of the AIAW, which does not reimburse for travel expenses.

And any exodus of significance would soon vitiate the AIAW championships, severely impairing the association's ability to negotiate television contracts for the events.

Ultimatley, the result is likely to be the opening of women's collegiate athletics to the types of abuses that have plagued men's athletics in recent years, Grant argues.

"The NCAA system is fraught with abuses recruiting scandals, bogus transcripts and low graduation rates for scholarships athletes. If the AIAW dies, all of athletics will have lost a viable option," says Grant.

Moreover, she contends, the entry of the NCAA into women's sports will decrease sharply any opportunites for women to achieve leadership roles as men assume authority over women's sports programs.

"Women will no longer shape their destinies," says Grant.

And considering Ncaa's past opposition to various provisions of Title IX, she observes, "The fox might be guarding the henhouse."

NCAA President James Frank denied that the association had ever opposed Title IX or equality of opportunity for women in sports.

"The NCAA has opposed bureaucratic overreach, but not the principles of equal opportunity," he told a symposium of equal on the implications of Title IX in Washington.

For the time being, most colleges with strong women's sports programs are opting for membership in both organizations, but the long-term outlook does appear dim for the AIAW, which generally follows a lower-key approach to sports competition than does the NCAA. In any event, says Lynne George, who directs women's sports at George Washington University, the controversy between the two groups has helped slow the growth and development of women's sports.

At George Washington, George has seen the women's sports program evolve from what was basically an intramural club program to a nine-sport intercollegiate program with a $270,000 budget for athletic scholarships for women. Performance levels of the women athletes have improved dramatically, she says, but the outlook for the future is likely to be dictated by changing tastes and interests rather than the volume growth of the past few years.

Pat Berry, Coordinator of secondary physical education and athletics for Montgomery County Schools, agreed. "The operating expenses for all sports are just going out of sight," she says, "but if we notice interest in a new sport, then we would take a look at the sport that has the least interest and consider dropping it to add the new one. But realistically, we have ceased to grow. The one thing I see happening in the future is a reduction in programs because of funding."