Early last December a University of Maryland student walked into an office of the economics department that had unintentionally been left unlocked and stole the final examination in a basic course enrolling 1,000 student, according to officials investigating the case.

The thief has never been caught despite officials' belief that he sold the exam to at least three large student groups -- a fraternity, a sorority and a campus dormitory -- for as much as $100 a copy.

Until recently, organized cheating of that magnitude was unheard of, progessors say. But now it has become a subject of serious concern as the university tries to raise the school's academic standards and improve its national reputation.

John Corliss, chairman of the zoology department -- one of the largest on campus -- said, "It's a fairly wellknown fact that cheating is rampant here. I hear it from other chairmen and faculty and have observed it myself."

About 60 cheating cases, ranging from plagiarism to stolen examinations, have come to the attention of university administrators each year since 1976.

"I'm sure that the cheaters we catch are only the tip of the iceberg," said Gary Pavela, head of the campus judiciary office. A survey conducted at North Carolina State University in Raleigh two years ago found that almost 10 percent of students questioned at the 17,000 student institution admitted cheating at least once during the school year. Administrators there, however, had only 35 reported incidents.

"Cheating is more prevalent than we would like to admit," said Elske Smith, an assistant vice chancellor. "One has to take measures to prevent it and the adverse effect it has on the academic process. A student may not work as hard here because we seem to tolerate cheating. As a result, the reputation of the university may be suffering."

Now, as university officials try to crack down on dishonesty in an attempt to implement President John S. Toll's pledge to make Maryland one of the 10 best universities in the country, student cheating has become increasingly sophisticated.

Along with theft and sale of exams, students at the university in the last two years have been caught forging grade transcripts, using smart friends as surrogates during exams and buying term papers from research firms and passing them off to teachers as original work.

The extent of cheating at Maryland is thought to be no more prevalent than at other American colleges. Nevertheless, not since the 1976 West Point scandal that led to a congressional inquiry into the U.S. Military Academy's honor code has students dishonesty received the type of scrutiny it is now getting at Maryland.

"Faculty members and administrators here and at other schools aren't going to stand up and say, 'We've got a cheating problem,'" said Albert Klavon, an assistant provost in the division of agricultural and life sciences at College Park. "Dishonesty among students hurts credibility, so it's kept inhouse."

But in recent months, officials at the university's main campus in College Park, eager to boost academic standards, have begun to study disciplinary procedures with an eye to streamlining the often time-consuming hearing process. It is hoped that a more efficient system will lead more teachers to bring cheaters up on charges, charges that can lead to dismissal from the university.

In addition, the first campuswide policy statement regarding academic dishonesty is being drafted to clarify cheating rules and provide professors with tips on how to discourage cheating.

"The policy is an attempt to say to students, parents, faculty -- everyone -- that 'Yes, the University of Maryland is concerned about cheating.'" said Smith, who is preparing the statement. "Our hope is that in the long run this will enhance our reputation as a quality institution as well as reduce the number of cheaters we have."

There is disagreement among educators about why students cheat. Some day it is done in a moment of panic or on a whim. Others suggest that the intense competition for choice slots in medical and professional schools has led some students to do almost anything to get good grades.

"Students have turned inward and become disinterested in the moral issues involved with cheating," Pavela said. "They now plainly see themselves along and competing against the next fellow for an A."

The different view is taken by Owen Thompson, an assistant provost who monitors cheating in the math, physical sciences and engineering division.

"Every student who comes to the university has to face the question of whether or not they're going to smoke pot, going to have premarital sex and whether they're going to cheat," he said. "For the most part, we don't have a problem with truly dishonest people."

Cheating is widely accepted, however, among many of the undergraduates at the campus in Prince George's County.

"People are afraid of failure. and you can avoid failing by cheating." said Judy Rowen, a 19-year-old sophomore active in student politics. "I'm an honor student, and I've been known to look over at another paper during exams, but nearly everyone does it."

Another student, senior English major Sue Darcy, said, "There's probably more cheating going on in the real world, so you may as well learn how to do it while you're in school."

Those attitudes among students, according to Shirley Kenny. Chairwoman of the English department and the president of the campus faculty senate, is an indication that putting a complete stop to cheating may be impossible.

"The implications of dishonesty among students concern our society, not necessarily just the university," she said. "There's much more to it than an institution can change."