A BIG SCANDAL is unfolding in the West over the faking of college credits to keep athletes eligible to compete in varsity sports. Six universities are already involved, and indications are that more will be. But unlike other scandals (mostly involving gambling) that have shaken college sports from time to time, this one strikes at a key element of the academic world's integrity -- the transfer of credits from one institution to another.

A federal investigation, undertaken to look into illegal gambling, has turned up evidence that college coaches systematically obtain phony credits for some of their athletes in summer school and extension courses sponsored by other colleges, often small schools that are struggling to stay in business. These credits are then transferred to the athlete's home school to keep him in compliance with eligibility rules.

In some cases, athletes did not even know they had been enrolled in the courses. In others, they have admitted that they never attended classes or did any of the work the courses were supposed to require. Two coaches have been fired as a result of the investigation at the University of New Mexico, another coach has resigned at the University of Oregon, and games have been forfeited for the use of ineligible players by New Mexico, Arizona State and San Jose State.

The problem, if you listen to the coaches, grows out of the pressure to produce winning teams. A winning team means more paid admissions at the gate, a stronger alumni following and, perhaps, national television exposure. Since the athletic programs of some institutions are supported by income from the big money sports -- football and basketball -- the coaches either produce winners or get out. Darryl Rogers, the football coach at Michigan State, said the stories of phony credits reminded him of an old saying among his colleagues: they'll fire you for losing before they'll fire you for cheating.

But systematic cheating on the transfer of academic credits is far more serious than cheating on athletic rules or monkeying with a college's internal affairs to keep particular athletes eligible. Every college or university in the country relies on the integrity of the transcripts it receives from other schools. Once those of athletes are put in doubt, as they now have been for several schools in the West, all the transcripts issued by those schools become suspect. If phony credits are available for athletes at a particular school, are they also available for teachers, public employees and others whose jobs require them to obtain additional college credits or whose salaries depend on how many credits they have?

Perhaps this scandal will shake the academic world and cause it to think about the way it tolerates the excesses of big-time sports. The quest for national championships, high rankings in the sports polls and television dollars is eating away at academic honesty. Without it, a college or university can too easily become just a prep school for the National Football League or the National Basketball Association -- and one that students who are not athletes attend at their own academic peril.