The dragnet was carefully planned.

While about 400 University of Maryland students were taking an examination in psychology recently, college officials quietly sealed off all exits to the classroom except one.

Barriers were erected in the hallway, where an armed campus policeman stood guard. After handing in their exams, the students were funneled through one exit and told to produce their college photo identification card. Students who had no ID were photographed mug-shot style holding large numbered cards.

The purpose of the security check was to ferret out "ringers" -- students who are paid by others to take their examinations for them.

According to the psychology department, 57 students could not prove that they were enrolled in the class. Officials have not yet determined how many -- if any at all -- were actual "ringers." Later that day, in a similar raid on a classroom of 50, four students confessed to authorities that they had taken the exam for other students.

Alarmed by the sharp increase in the use of "ringers," as well as other, more sophisticated forms of cheating, officials at the College Park campus are mounting a massive campaign to crack down on academic dishonesty.

Referring to last week's unprecedented action, Gary Pavela, director of the campus judicial program, said, "I think the methods could be refined. Some of the students were shook up, but others welcomed it. The majority of the students on this campus are getting fed up with the cheating."

Yesterday, the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, endorsed the sting operation with an editorial calling for even stronger measures, if necessary, to crack down on academic dishonesty.

"Like police arresting speeders, the intent is not to catch everyone," the newspaper said, "but rather to catch enough to spread the word."

So far this year, Pavela said, 80 students have been caught cheating. Two were expelled (for attempting to steal an econimics exam) as opposed to none in 1978-79. In addition, the number of students put on probation for cheating rose 20 percent this year. Even so, Pavela said, only a fraction of the cheaters are ever caught.

In one particularly dramatic case last year, a student was able somehow to change the computerized grades for 40 of his fraternity brothers from B's to A's.

Although the offender was caught and expelled when computerized printouts of the final grades did not match up with what individual faculty members had recorded, Pavela said officials still have not determined how the student managed to crack the sophisticated computer codes.

"That's the worst we've had," Pavela said. "Nobody's even sure how he did it."

Although cheating has become more sophisticated, students still rely on such old-fashioned methods as peeking over a classmate's shoulder, bringing unauthorized materials to an exam ("crib sheets"), paying another student to write a term paper ("research assistance") and selling stolen exams for as much as $100.

If the student protests the cheating charge, he can appear before a formal judiciary board hearing. "These kids are being represented by outside attorneys who charge up to $2,000 to represent them," Pavela said. "The attorney usually makes an effort to avoid having any permanent record of the incident."

Since campuses often are deficient in letting other computers know of this conduct, a student can easily transfer to another institution. In most cases, Pavela said, a student's parents tend to excuse the infraction. "They say their son is trying to survive in a competitive world."

College officials attribute the increase in cheating directly to the economy. Today's tight job market, Pavela said, is "a major factor."

"The idealism of the 1960s is gone," he said. "There has been a definite loss of an intrinsic love of learning in the '60s, we went to college to gain skills to effect social change. Now, there's intense vocationalism and the need for skills to get a job."

Pavela drew a profile of a typical cheater at the University of Maryland, where 35,000 students matriculated this year. "More men than women cheat, more upperclassmen, and the majority of them come from the social sciences department: business, economics, government and politics.

The typical offender, he said, is a campus resident, "tending to the middle class and above. His own grades tend to be mediocre, but he's not failing."

Has the University of Maryland become a haven for cheaters? "No more than any other large institution," said Carol Zuckerman, chairperson, of an advisory committee of student leaders that recently recommended several changes in university policy government academic dishonesty.

"There's so much pressure to get good grades," she said. "A lot of individuals resort to cheating. Our idea was to be a forerunner to attack what is a nationwide problem."

On May 17, the new student code of conduct, as voted on by the board of regents, will go into effect. The most serious change in the new code will be the recommendation that any student caught cheating for the first time be suspended for an indefinite amount of time.

Under the existing code, first-time offenders are given a warning and a failing grade in the course, and are placed on probation. Depending on the seriousness of the offense, the incident may or may not be recorded in the student's transcript.

The new code, which is already being studied by universities around the country, also places a heavy penalty on group cheating, such as by fraternities and sororities. "As of May 17, student groups will be held responsible if the violation receives tacit or overt consent of the group or the organization's officers," said Pavela.

The university would then have the authority to revoke the group's charter and close it down.

Under the new guidelines, the infraction would also be permanently recorded in the student's file.

After studying nearly two dozen campus systems for punishing cheaters, the University of Maryland found only two schools with more severe guidelines: Princeton University and the University of Virginia. Both institutions automatically expel first-time offenders.

A check with Washington-area colleges showed that the University of Maryland's judicial process was the most sophisticated. At American University, for example, approximately 15 students have been caught cheating this year. The dean determines the punishment, which is done on a case-by-case basis. Although the school has a judicial board governing student misconduct in the dormitories, it has none on academic cheating.

Citing last year's "Carnegie Commission Study on Fair Practices in Higher Education," which concluded with the statement that colleges and their faculties tended to be lax in punishing students caught cheating, Pavela said the new crackdown will only protect the University of Maryland's "integrity."

Will cheating in college ruin your life?

Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) was caught at Harvard persuading a "ringer" to take a freshman Spanish exam for him.

"Yeah, and Jody Powell was caught cheating at the Air Force Academy," said Pavela. "It's not necessarily the end for someone," he theorized. "But it's going to be a burden to them the rest of their life."