Rep. James J. Howard (D-N.J.) introduced legislation yesterday that would remove federal tax exemptions from individuals making donations to athletic booster clubs at colleges and universities that do not graduate 75 percent of their scholarship athletes.

"Considering the dismal graduation rate of college athletes at some institutions, I believe it is time for the federal government to reconsider whether or not such tax benefits, given under the guise of advancing education, are warranted or deserved," Howard said.

Howard's bill makes reference to all scholarship athletes, but he said after a news conference yesterday that, following hearings, the focus may be changed to include only football and basketball players. The legislation, if passed, would become effective in 1990 and would be based on a five-year average of graduation rates of players who received a scholarship for at least three years.

A new College Football Association study of graduation rates of football players at its member schools showed only three of 53 reporting schools to have a rate 75 percent or higher. The CFA average was 44.8 percent, with 25 schools below that rate, including eight at 25 percent or less. The CFA statistic includes all freshmen who received a football scholarship in 1979. The CFA will not reveal the names of any of the schools below 75 percent.

There are no national graduation statistics available for scholarship basketball players. Memphis State, a participant in the Final Four this season, has graduated only four of 43 scholarship players who have entered the school since 1973, according to university statistics.

"Not to pick on Memphis State, but I'm sure that more than four out of those 43, with some help, could have graduated," Howard said. "I'm sure that the situation at Memphis State is not an isolated incident. When you consider that only 1 percent of college athletes sign a professional contract, you have to wonder what happens to those athletes who have been used for their athletic ability, but fall between the cracks. . . "

Howard's bill comes less than a month before the NCAA holds a special convention in New Orleans (June 20-21) to consider reforms in such areas as academic integrity.

Bob Atwell, president of the Washington-based American Council on Education, said, "It is inappropriate for the federal government to legislate in this area. This is a topic on which the higher education community and institutions should act, not the federal government . . . "

In a prepared statement, Howard justified federal intervention by saying, "I really don't see how anyone would dispute the fact that the federal government has a basic responsibility to ensure that the tax benefits it allows are being used properly . . . We must remember that colleges and universities are not training grounds for professional athletes; they are institutions of higher learning."