When the news broke at Waseda University, one of Japan's more prestigious institutions, the shock to those inside was almost unimaginable.

The president was so choked with emotion he could barely speak at a news conference. A fund-raising drive for Waseda's 100th anniversary was postponed. Public apologies poured out, women staff members wept, and a dean resigned in the traditional Japanese way of accepting responsibility for a calamity.

The news was that entrance examinations for Waseda's school of commerce had been stolen, copied and sold, complete with answers, for 10 million yen each (about $40,200) to overambitious parents desperate to see their children enrolled.

The widely publicized scandel provoked a new public debate over the high price of college admissions in Japan, a price usually measured not in money but in emotional strain, family pressures, and, often, in student despair.

Admission to a top Japanese university is the key to success, and the pressures to pass entrance exams are intense. Students begin cramming for them in expensive after-hours classes while they are in primary school. Parents go into debt to hire tutors. Suicides and mental breakdowns are not uncommon.

The failure rate is high. A total of 22,777 hopefuls took the Waseda commerce test last month and only 2,130 were accepted.

The pressures are tolerable because the stakes are so high -- perhaps the highest of a lifetime for an ambitious person. Admission to a top college virtually guarantees lifetime employment at a good salary. Once admitted, students encounter a leisurely academic routine and few flunk out. Even before graduation, they are recruited by the best companies and, barring some calamitous experience on the job, can look forward to regular raises and promotions until retirement.

Social critics who have long deplored the system and advocated reform found the Waseda exam-peddling scandal an almost inevitable result of the pressures to enter a leading college. Kiyoaki Murata, a columnist for the Japan Times, called it the "tip of the iceberg."

With the exam having such value, theft is not new. In 1971, someone stole Osaka University entrance exams from a jailhouse printing shop, supposedly the safest place to store them.

There are also many cases of parents making "backdoor payments" to have their children enrolled in medical and dental schools. The head of a medical preparatory school called Tokyo Seminar was accused last year of collecting $10,450 from 110 parents by promising their children entrance into private universities, mostly medical schools.

It is rare, however, that a widespread exam-selling scandal hits a major university such as Waseda, a private college with 40,000 students on three Tokyo campuses. According to school officials, the only other known incident there was in 1968 when a politics and economics faculty member leaked the exam to relatives, but not for a fee.

According to the police version, confirmed by a Waseda official, the scandal began last November when Iichi Watanabe, a Waseda alumnus and warehouse company executive, offered a large sum of money for copies of the school of commerce exam scheduled for Feb. 24.

He found accomplices in two Waseda clerks who enlisted a third man, an employe of the university print shop, to smuggle out copies of the exam in English, Japanese, mathematics and social studies. They were quickly copied and returned to the print shop.

Then Watanabe arranged to have model answers prepared by an unknkowing group of Waseda students. Authorities believe sets of exam and answers were peddled to at least 10 parents.

Also suspected is Yasunobu Ichihara, 66, a professor of the school of education and a prominent sportsman, boxing coach and member of the Japan Olympic Committee. He is under investigation for distributing at least one exam, and has been suspended.

Unconfirmed reports hint at a broader conspiracy. Polic reportedly suspect that a network of "brokers" was enlisted to sell the exam and that the ring may have included a private secretary to a former member of parliament.

In other countries, the escapade might have been dismissed as the work of a few bad apples, but in Japan the whole institution must suffer. Waseda President Tsukasa Shimizu apologized to the school's directors for a "dishonorable" incident that had soiled nearly a century of tradition.

University officials imply that the exam scandal will lead to widespread changes. President Shimizu told his directors it is not merely a case of poor administration but related fundamentally to the school's whole reason for being. He promised a "fundamental reform" but did not say what path it would take.