It is becoming increasingly apparent that the Virginia General Assembly needs to debate and approve a well-articulated policy for completing the integration of black Virginians into the state's college system.
Up to now, Virginia and other states have left the issue to their governors and to a system of negotiated settlements between state administrators and those in the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.
The process is not working very well. A handful of Southern states have agreed to new college desegregation plans, but black plaintiffs who convicted U.S. District Court Judge John H. Pratt in Washington that the old plans were sufficient are now telling him the same thing about the new ones.
HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano has found the plans of three states - Virginia, North Carolina and Georgia - to be unsatisfactory, setting in motion the long process of withholding federal college aid from each.
However, one state, Maryland, already has persuaded the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that HEW desegregation directives are so vague and its administrative procedures so uneven that no funds can be cut off until the federal agency corrects both.
This process, so far, has demonstrated nothing better than the limitation of federal aid cutoffs, and all the administrative and judicial procedures they involve, as a means of addressing fundamental policy questions.
The fundamental question in Virginia and the other states is how a large minority shall be brought into full participation in higher education without doing violence to constitutional standards of equal treatment under the law.
In a property functioning state government, only the legislature, acting on its own initiative or responding to proposals from the executive, should establish the policies and programs for a college system that can achieve the goal of education for a minority without unlawful discrimination.
Virginia Gov. John Dalton has told Califano that he will consider a revised desegregation plan for the state's colleges and has told his attorney general and secretary of education to draft one. It is possible that they will come up with a plan that satisfies HEW without compromising Dalton's own opposition to quotas for black enrollments at predominantly white colleges.
It is doubtful, however, that such a plan will actually desegregate Virginia's college system in the near future. To do that will require actions more decisive than even a constitutionally strong executive should take without a legislative mandate.
To understand this, it is essential to recognize that Virginia does in fact have a segregated college system. Two-thirds of its black college students attend two predomantly black schools, Norfolk State and Virginia State.
Moreover, it is essential to recognize that these two schools and special programs for black students at other schools amount to a quota system that sustains a black college enrollment that is 17 percent of the total - almost as high as the percentage of black residents in Virginia.
The admission standards at the predominantly black schools are low. The environment they provide is supportive of students who might drop out of or never enter a predominantly white school for social or scholastic reasons.
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, the second largest state university, is the only predominantly white school with a high ratio of black students, and its black enrollment is sustained by the federally funded Special Services program that duplicates the preferential treatment available to black students at Norfolk State and Virginia State.
This is not a color-blind system, but few doubt that a color-blind system would bring abut a drastic decline in black participation in higher education in Virginia. In a state with almost 1 million black residents, the consequences of a color-blind college system are politically unrealistic.
Most assembly members are reluctant to get into the college desegregation issue. They are satisfied withthe present arrangement, largely because they perceive that their black constituents and their few black colleagues in the assembly are satisfied with it.
However, assembly members are not likely to be content with a series of agency orders that take on the appearance of federal intervention in the college system. HEW can go only so far before Dalton and his lawyers will be forced to defend in court the system the legislature has created up to now.
The administrative and judicial morass in which the desegregation case is mired promises enough delay to give the assembly a chance to shoulder its responsibility for making the state and federal system work.
A legislative study commission and passage of a Higher Education Act that sets out a state policy for the continuing college education of black Virginians - without the isolation of black students under the present system - would give the governor something worth defending.