Early in 1978, a group of state and U.S. officials sat down in the board room of a Richmond bank to draft a plan that was supposed to eliminate the last vestiges of segregation at Virginia's public colleges and universities and bring the state into compliance with the Civil Rights Act.

It was a day Virginia had been postponing for almost a decade, yet when it finally arrived there was not enough time. The final product -- setting "numerical objectives" for college integration to be met by 1983 -- was concocted under the threat of a cutoff of federal aid, cut and pasted together between telephone calls to Washington, and written as fast as a typist could insert revised language.

Not surprisingly, the 1978 document, proclaimed by Gov. John N. Dalton as an end to a bitter dispute, soon was revealed to have serious flaws. Before the year was over, some state officials were complaining about unrealistic numbers that they said built failure into the Virginia plan.

Four years later that failure is at hand, forcing Gov. Charles S. Robb to deal with a racial issue that has vexed the state since Brown v. Board of Education. The governor, who owes his election in part to the overwhelming black support he received, is facing a mid-September deadline to produce revisions to the 1978 plan or, once again, be confronted with a possible cutoff of an estimated $100 million in U.S. college aid.

State officials speak optimistically of resolving the issue with what they call "the Robb initiatives," a series of steps to improve the state's education system. They concede their new plan may take years to work.

Some wonder if there ever can be a resolution of the dilemma inherent in the federal demands: to preserve the state's two predominantly black public colleges and effectively integrate all the state's colleges.

"It's a no-win situation," says Staige D. Blackford, who worked on the problem 12 years ago for Gov. Linwood Holton. "You've got inherently inferior black schools which have an interest in their own continuation. The only way you are going to resolve that is to get whites to go to those schools, which they're not going to do because the schools are inferior. You're in a Catch-22 situation."

To Robb and his advisers, the critical issue is to redress the state's failure to prepare many blacks for college -- a problem that he hopes to address by strengthening high school academic requirements, tightening college admission standards and other changes.

According to Barry Dorsey, associate director of the state Council on Higher Education, that will be a change from the previous Virginia approach, which focused on "just trying to plug in numbers to meet federal demands."

Today there is no dispute that Virginia is woefully behind schedule in integrating its college campuses. About 60 percent of black undergraduates at the state's four-year colleges are still enrolled in its two predominantly black colleges, down from 72 percent in 1976. The percentage of blacks at the 13 traditionally white four-year colleges has gone up only slightly, from 6.2 percent in 1978 to 7.2 percent in 1981. Minority hiring has lagged, as has black enrollment in graduate schools.

Some black leaders, noting increases in black enrollment at the white colleges have come at the expense of the predominantly black colleges, charge that the state has done little to help Virginia State University and Norfolk State University, two pivotal institutions in the state's black community that were supposed to be improved under the plan.

"Desegregation requires more than just numbers of students," said state Sen. L. Douglas Wilder, the state's top black elected official. "I don't believe the state council [of higher education] has ever been aware of what we are concerned with."

"Virginia is dragging its feet," said Arnold Henderson, vice president of academic affairs at Virginia State, who argues that the state failed to consult black administrators on how to improve black colleges. "They find reasons for not giving Virginia State certain programs but the reasons are obvious: they don't think a black institution can manage itself."

Black leaders also are disturbed by the fact that, despite the plan, the number of black freshmen enrolling each fall in Virginia's 13 four-year and 24 two-year public colleges -- which last year enrolled 31,479 blacks out of about 222,000 students -- has been dropping. In 1976, 6,325 black, first-time freshmen entered the state's colleges. By 1981, the number had dropped to 5,485.

For these and other reasons, the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education demanded that Virginia rewrite the 1978 plan, citing "several serious and longstanding problems" with its execution. In asking revisions, the federal government confronted an issue that had spanned five administrations in Richmond, four in Washington.

It began in 1969 when Virginia, along with nine other states, was warned by the federal government that it had to take active steps to undo the legacy of segregated colleges. In the ensuing years, that edict, toughened by a prolonged court suit brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, was to be handed down from governor to governor -- relayed first by Gov. Mills E. Godwin to Holton, then by Holton back to Godwin in 1974, and landing squarely in Dalton's lap in 1978.

Although his precedessors offered various plans, it was Dalton who finally made the first serious attempt to comply with the federal demands, initiating the frantic last-minute negotiating session that resulted in a plan. According to a Dalton adviser, the Republican governor, acting at the prodding of the Democratic General Assembly, finally realized it was futile -- and damaging -- to keep stalling.

"The fact was that Virginia did have a dual system," said a Dalton adviser who asked not to be named. "You could argue until you were blue in the face that it didn't discriminate as some previous administrations had done but the legal advice we finally got is that the state did have a dual system, that there were no blacks on the board of the University of Virginia. The line was clearly there."

In Virginia and elsewhere, eradicating the vestiges of de facto segregation in higher education has proved to be a delicate and complex task, involving not only racial attitudes but educational theories and the never-easy relationship between state government and college boards. Unlike elementary and secondary schools, which in Virginia did not begin integration until 1959, colleges are voluntary institutions that must sell themselves to students. Given the state's discriminatory past, Virginia colleges, including some of its most prestigious, have only belatedly learned that recruiting black students requires more effort than inserting equal opportunity language in the school catalogues.

As Virginia also has found, some recruiting efforts -- particularly those geared strictly to numbers -- can work against themselves. For instance, as an inducement for integration, Virginia has awarded about $5 million in one-shot, $1,000 grants for black students to go to predominantly white colleges, or for white students to go to black colleges.

The program, cynically dubbed the "bounty" program by legislators, has been a flop. Since the grants were available to students only for one year, it was of no help to students who needed continued financial support. Some state officials now feel that it enticed students into institutions for which they were not prepared, contributing to declining enrollment at the black schools and the two-year colleges.

"It doesn't do a thing just to increase enrollment," said Carol Hardy, assistant dean for minority student affairs at The College of William and Mary. "The greatest tragedy is to take in warm bodies with known deficiencies and have nothing there to help them. What is more important, to help the student or meet some abstract formula?"

The fundamental problem, state officials now say, is that the Virginia plan failed to take into account demographic changes or to look at the role of secondary education in preparing children for college.

The plan anticipated that the number of black Virginians entering college would increase by about 1,600 from 1978 to the present. That has not happened. There were almost exactly the same number of new black students from the state last year -- about 4,200 -- as there were in 1978.

"When you looked at the pool of black high school graduates, it just wasn't there to meet the 1983 goals ," said Barry Dorsey, associate director of the State Council of Higher Education. "The Office of Civil Rights never focused on that problem. They try to do everything in terms of measurable objectives . . . but you can get so entangled in goals and objectives that often you lose the forest for the trees."

"When people worked out the plan, they thought they were realistic," said one official in the Office of Civil Rights. "They set realistic goals and objectives based on information they had at the time. Nobody could foresee what has happened since."

Still, many argue that the federal government put too much emphasis on what one black educator calls "the salt-and-pepper approach: more blacks on white campuses, more whites on black campuses." Samuel Myers of the National Association of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, which represents the nation's black colleges, insists that by focusing on numbers and not on education, the plans have failed at both. "We are not doing so well as we should; we're not doing what we said we were going to do," he said. "We are not doing well at all."

Virginia is not alone in these problems. The number of blacks going to Harvard University and other Ivy League colleges has declined this year, largely, experts say, because of cuts in financial aid. Of the 10 states that have submitted college desegregation plans to the Office of Civil Rights, none has achieved compliance.

To Virginia Education Secretary John Casteen, the widening trend is proof that the desegregation plans have been aiming at the wrong target. "I think we are seeing some fundamental flaws in the educational theory of these plans," said Casteen. "When every state fails to meet every goal and every timetable, something is wrong."

The drop in black freshmen enrollment at the community colleges, in particular, is a cause for "serious concern," Casteen added, noting the important role played by the two-year colleges in providing a bridge for disadvantaged students to enter the four-year institutions.

Of the state's 13 white colleges, only two have met the black enrollment standards. Some, including one of Virginia's most prestigious institutions, have fallen embarrassingly short. The College of William and Mary enrolled 43 black freshmen in 1981, only six more than in 1976 and 77 fewer than it was supposed to under the plan.

Meanwhile, there was little evidence that either of the state's two publicly funded traditionally black colleges was significantly better off as a result of the plan. New academic and building programs, called for under the plan, only now are beginning at Virginia State University, founded 100 years ago as the nation's first publicly supported black college. Of the two, Norfolk State University has made more progress under the plan but some educators note that was due more to its urban location than to the state's efforts.

This summer there was evidence that even the University of Virginia, once the showpiece of the state's affirmative-action efforts, was going to see a drop in the number of black freshmen enrolled this fall -- down to about 240 from 324 last year.

The university, which plans to start this fall with a more active recruiting program, attributed the decrease in black students to tougher admission standards. Jean Rayburn, dean of admissions, also noted that only 52 percent of the 450 who were admitted actually accepted, compared to 60 percent last year.

Black enrollment was down this year at Virginia Tech, George Mason and Radford universities, too. Several colleges said qualified black students were turning down the Virginia colleges for others that offered more financial aid.

Even before the 1982 statistics came in, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was back in court, arguing that Virginia, among other states, was making a dismal effort to comply with its plan.

State officials argued that the Virginia colleges are governed by a decentralized system of separate governing boards that have little to do with state government in Richmond.

Even within those confines, some state officials acknowledge that the state has not shown initiative in responding to the federal mandate. "There doesn't seem to have been a uniformity of approach, no comprehensive state-wide approach," said Dale Robinson, head of affirmative-action programs at William and Mary. "If the message is made clear from the administration to the colleges, then they will improve. Let's face it: the governor and the General Assembly control our budgets. It's got to come from the top."

To Casteen, a former director of admissions at the University of Virginia, the problems with the plan are largely educational and can best be addressed not by the colleges, but by the state's secondary schools.

That view was underscored last year in a study done for the Council of Higher Education, which showed that black high school students in Virginia were not being offered the same college preparation as their white classmates. Less than 58 percent of the black public high school seniors who planned to attend a public, four-year college in the fall of 1980 were taking the kinds of courses required for college entrance, compared to 79 percent of white students.

"This meant, of course, that only half the black seniors in Virginia that year could even hope to apply to selective colleges and universities," wrote Charlotte Scott, author of the study. The result, concluded Scott, is that "higher education in Virginia remains segregated de facto, even though almost three decades have passed since the Supreme Court ruling."

Scott's findings already have led to programs that focus on guidance counseling in the middle schools, where most students begin to plan for college. Casteen, considered one of the strongest members of Robb's cabinet, also is considering other options, including some that coincide with his campaign for better guidance in the schools and higher admissions standards at most colleges.

As Casteen sees it, the plan has become an instrument of a larger, more fundamental quest. "Fundamentally, this is a problem that goes back to 1619 in this state. I don't know who thinks we can undo it in five years."

Tomorrow: A look at a school in transition and in trouble: Virginia State University.