Now that American higher education once again has showcased its outstanding students in 11 hours of New Year's Day bowl game television football, the nation waits breathlessly for the next great test. Can any college find a group of scholars capable of competing with the Running Rebels of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas?

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, which administers a code of conduct as nit-picking and morally obtuse as that of the U.S. Senate, has placed Jerry Tarkanian's talented UNLV basketball team on probation. But conveniently for TV and its advertisers, it has delayed the penalty long enough for them to defend their title in this winter's high-ratings NCAA tournament.

Next week, the NCAA will be in Nashville for its annual meeting, there to wrestle again with the built-in hypocrisies of "amateur" collegiate athletics as a vital ingredient in a multi-billion-dollar television advertising and entertainment business. Just as they arrive, Lamar Alexander leaves his job as president of the University of Tennessee to become secretary of education.

A few years back, when Alexander moved from the Tennessee governorship into the university post, he was asked about his goals. "I'd like to introduce the state to the concept of academic excellence," he said with a smile. "It's kind of a new notion here."

Like many other big universities, the Volunteers' Knoxville campus has been dominated psychologically as well as physically by the football stadium, home of this year's Sugar Bowl contender, and the basketball field house, where championship men's and women's teams regularly train. As Alexander understood, alumni, legislators and citizens seem to care more about a university's standing in the football and basketball polls than the quality of its research and education.

Because customs and codes require colleges to maintain the fiction that the players who make these vastly profitable games possible receive nothing in return but subsidized college educations -- a myth that is regularly exposed by enterprising journalists and by the NCAA itself -- there is resistance to the obvious solution.

That solution is to call big-time college basketball and football by its rightful name -- professional sports -- and separate the teams from their tenuous attachment to the colleges, incorporating them as what they are: profit-making businesses run by shrewd entrepreneurs like Tarkanian. Then they could pay the players salaries commensurate with their skills. If they want to use their off-season hours for education, fine, but don't subject them -- or their classmates -- to the daily duplicity of pretending they are really students who just happen to have an extracurricular interest that brings in millions of dollars.

A newly issued study by the Department of Education suggests that high-profile college sports do serve as a vehicle for helping people of limited means and meager educational backgrounds gain college degrees and a faster start toward economic success. But even if you accept it as valid, it does not begin to justify the moral and financial costs of the system.

A department researcher named Clifford Adelman combed through a random sample of some 8,000 people who graduated from high school in 1972 and went on to attend four-year colleges. He compared what has happened to 134 among them who were varsity football and basketball players with the experience of their non-athletic classmates. His study confirms some suspicions and rebuts others.

The jocks got into college despite having significantly weaker high school records and test scores than the others. But contrary to myth, almost two-thirds of them received bachelor's degrees -- a ratio that matched that of their non-athletic peers.

They had a lot of help in getting through. Two-thirds of them received scholarships, compared with only half the non-athletes, and there was generous tutoring. Even so, they were slow to graduate: As many took five or six years to get a degree as made it through in the four years that was standard for most non-athletes. And their grades were lower, their courses less demanding and, at age 32, when they were most recently surveyed, significantly fewer of them said their college experience was relevant to their current jobs.

Nonetheless, they were doing better economically, by every measure, than their non-jock classmates. They reported less post-college unemployment than their peers. Their incomes were about 10 percent higher than their former classmates, even though only 2 percent of them said they were working in the entertainment and recreation field -- i.e, cashing in as pros.

This study suggests that college did not fail -- or ruthlessly exploit -- these jocks. Whether the care and resources the colleges invest in the few hundred players who draw such huge crowds and produce such vast revenues is consistent with the overall education mission is another question altogether, to which my answer is a resounding no.

I doubt that Tennessee's appearance on New Year's Day in the Sugar Bowl brought it one step closer to Alexander's goal of "academic excellence." That's what it -- and other colleges -- really ought to have as their goal.