It has long been accepted that when the pressures of high-stakes college athletics conflict with the academic mission of an educational institution, corners will be cut. But there is a vast disparity in policy from one college to the next.

"When you get down to the bare facts, everyone makes concessions," said Dick Bestwick, the University of Virginia's football coach. "We make concessions. Harvard and the Ivy League schools make concessions. But it is a little like the difference between being a jaywalker and a murderer. We're a jaywalker. Harvard is a jaywalker. Some of the colleges are murderers. Some of them as mass murderers."

Bestwick was talking about the special consideration given athletes in that often highly competitive process of deciding who is admitted to college and who is turned away. But, in fact, those special considerations continue throughout an athlete's academic career. Many institutions routinely supply a corps of special advisers, counselors and tutors to help an athlete. Graduation and a degree are, of course, the goal.But in many instances, the bottom line is preservation of eligibility.

The publication and widespread circulation late last month of a letter to 150 college coaches on behalf of Patrick Ewing, the highly sought-after high school basketball star, has heightened debate over the appropriate balance between athletics and academics in college.

In that letter, published initially by the Boston Globe and later by Inside Sports magazine, Ewing's high school coach, Mike Jarvis, outlined a variety of Ewing's academic weaknesses and set forth a program to compensate for them.

Although motivated and conscientious, he wrote, Ewing would require careful guidance in course selection, daily tutoring -- including help with construction of papers -- proofreading of papers, review of reading material, untimed testing and permission to use a tape recorder to record lectures.

Ewing, explained the coach, "learns a great deal through listening, a skill he has developed to compensate for his reading deficiency . . . Pat's slowness in writing does not give him ample opportunity to express himself."

After months of deliberation, Ewing announced he would enter Georgetown, one of the nation's more academically selective institutions; 8,600 applications were received this year for 1,200 spots in next year's freshman class.

Neither the athletic staff nor the admissions office at Georgetwon will discuss the specifics of Ewing's case, but it is a matter of record that admission to Georgetown is generally reserved for those with excellent academic records and that candidates of Ewing's academic caliber are not, under normal circumstances, admitted.

It is also a fact, says Charles Deacon, Georgetown's director of admissions, that the process of selection and admission includes more than pure academics.

"We have a great many choices we can make, because most of the 8,600 people who apply can do the work here," he said. "Academics are very important here, but we do look at categories other than strict academic ability." Children of alumni, for example, are given preferential treatment, as are candidates with unusual talents such as exceptional abilities in music or art. Like most colleges, Georgetown is actively seeking minorities. The fact that a candidate may be black or Hispanic will be weighed in the admissions process.

"We're looking for the most interesting mix of people we can get," said Deacon.

When it comes to recruited athletes, said Deacon, candidates for admission do not have to be weighed competitively against the pool of other applicants. Basically, they are admitted on the recommendation of the coach, provided the admissions committee is satisfied they can do Georgetown work and there is no other compelling reason not to admit them.

To assist basketball players in doing Georgetown work, the university employs Mary Fenlon, a former English and Latin teacher at St. Anthony's High School who came to Georgetwon with Coach John Thompson in 1972. Citing a concern for his players' privacy, Thompson would not discuss any aspect of the academic support program for basketball players, nor would he permit Fenlon to be interviewed.

Fenlon, who carries the title of academic coordinator, monitors students' academic progress, helps in course selection and arranges tutoring when necessary. She travels with the team, attends more practices and helps out in recruiting. Freshmen are required to check in with her at least once a day.

No one has said, at least not in public, whether Georgetown will be prepared to meet all of Ewing's requests. But the concept of special help and tutoring for athletes is in force at many schools.

In 1977, the University of Virginia set up a formal study hall-tutoring program required of all first year grant-in-aid athletes and upperclassmen whose academic work is substandard.

"Because student athletes spend 20 to 30 hours a week engaged in activities other than those required of the other students, we felt there was some justification for some special help," said Clayton D. Lewis, the former Virginia professor who initiated the program.

"We wanted our tutors to help the athletes with reading, writing and speech skills," said Lewis, who left the university last fall to take a job with the Albemarle County public school system. "The tutors really serve as monitors. They make sure the kids are going to class and they make sure their assignments are up to date. But we also wanted to make sure the professors understood that we were not doing the work for the student athletes. pThe athletes were expected to have done all their reading, or to have attempted to do it, and to be able to ask specific questions."

Similarly, Howard University has a mandatory study hall-tutoring program for all freshman football players and upperclass team members whose grade-point averages fall below 2.0.

American University has an informal tutoring and counseling service available for those athletes who want it, and the department of athletics make routine inquiries each semester on the academic progress of its athletes.

A new NCAA rule requiring athletes to earn at least 24 credit hours a year toward a degree as a condition of eligibility is likely to focus increased attention on academics, according to some officials.

"It's a significant departure," said Jon Boone, acting director of under-graduate admissions at the University of Maryland at College Park.

"With these new regulations coming in, my main job will be to see that every one of our athletes graduates," said Jim Dietsch, former soccer coach at Maryland who became the academic coordinator for the athletic department in January.

"We're trying to impress on the kids that you don't have to wait until you fail a test before you go for some tutoring," said Dietsch. "Go ahead of time. It's like preventive medicine. Some of these kids just don't have the high school background to handle college math and college English. A very small percentage of our athletes goes on to the pros, so the studies are important."

Dietsch consults with Boone in the admissions office before deciding on the admission of an athlete. "Occasionally, we take a chance on a marginal kid, but if you do it too often, you end up spending a lot of time on them and you can wreck your program. There are too many athletes who are also good students to take a chance on too many marginal kids."

At Virginia, John Casteen, admissions dean, said the process of admissions in the major revenue-producing sports tends to be more flexible than in the minor sports.

"Some sports are more important to us than others," he said, noting that the committee stil has to be reasonably sure the athlete has a chance of graduating on time. "About 85 percent of the athletes we do admit do graduate on time," said Casteen.

Without a preferential admissions policy for athletes, most coaches contend they would be unable to forge a winning program. No one feels this more deeply than Bob Tallent, fired last week as basketball coach at George Washington University after an 8-19 season.

"Ninety percent of the schools in the United States will let in any athlete as long as he has a 2.0 grade-point average, and almost all kids have at least a 2.0," said Tallent, who had complained bitterly over GW's refusal to adopt a preferential admissions policy for athletes.

"At GW, you have to have 800 (out of a possible 1,600) or about on your college boards and be in the top 25 percent of your high school class. A lot of your basketball players can get only 600 on their boards."

Joseph Y. Ruth, GW's director of admissions, cannot say he's never made an exception for an athlete. "But we don't, as a rule, turn over our admissions process to the coaches," he said. "We are not all that highly selective an institution, but we are looking for B students from schools known to us to have a reasonably solid academic program. Our combined college board scores are over 1,000, which is not to say we never go below that. But, as a general rule, if there is not enough documentation of an athlete's having a reasonable chance of being able to finish, we won't take him."

Drawing up minimum admissions standards at the University of Maryland two years ago, the university board of regents authorized an individual admissions category under which candidates with "exceptional aptitude or talent in art, music, dramatics, mathematics or athletics" could be exempted from the standard admissions criteria.

Under the board's policy, up to 15 percent of each entering class could be excused from the minimum qualifications, which were a 2.0 grade-point average in high school (also the NCAA minimum for eligibility) and standing in the top 40 percent of the class in high school.

Boone said 20 athletes were admitted under this special classification last September, which would mean 80 such admissions within any four-year period if the rate of individual admissions held.

In general, however, admissions officers try to avoid cutoffs at either end of the spectrum. Each case, they say is weighed individually. Students at Georgetown, for example, have average combined college board scores of more than 1,200,600 each in the verbal and math categories. Yet Georgetown has been known to admit candidates in the lower 50 percent of their high school class who score below 400 on a single test.

"It's not all done by the numbers. We have kids in our freshman class whose scores and grade averages cover a considerable range," said Dal Holmes, an assistant admissions director at American University whose assignments include liaison work with the department of athletics.

Howard University insists only on successful completion of high school and satisfactory grades and college boards but declined to specify how it would interpret "satisfactory." Minimum entrance requirements for the University of the District of Columbia are a high school diploma or its equivalent.

At the Naval Academy, admission is based on a formula, which awards points for participation in athletics but also stresses academic excellence -- 81 percent of those admitted into the class of 1983 were in the top fifth of their high school class and college board scores averaged 573 on the verbal test and 600 on the math.

"We're interested in the whole-man concept," said Athletic Director J.O. Coppedge.

Catholic University, which this year eliminated athletic scholarships and downgraded its athletic program from the NCAA's Division I to Division III, has traditionally shown no preference for athletes in its admissions process said Admissions Director Robert J. Talbot, who is also a former baseball coach.

"I couldn't even get a break when I was baseball coach, and I was working in the admissions office then," said Talbot. Essentially, Catholic University looks for college board scores of at least 500 each in the verbal and math tests and a B average, and Talbot acknowledges that strict adherence to such a standard makes it difficult to run a major collegiate sports program.

"We treat everybody the same, whether it's a violinist from Texas or one of (Coach) Jack Kvancz's baketball players," said Talbot. "Maybe that's why we're back in Division III."