For four years Edward Smith has tried to recruit white students for predominantly black Virginia State University, a century-old institution with 4,300 students that sits on a hill overlooking the Appomattox River.

Regarded by his peers as an expert at persuasion, Smith, vice president for admissions at Virginia State, has visited hundreds of high schools and advertised on radio and television.

His office sent out 4,570 letters to selected white students, urging them to apply. Of that group, 39 wrote back and, of those, one enrolled.

Smith, a Virginia State alumnus, is puzzled and hurt by the failure of his recruiting campaign. "It didn't do much, but we did it anyway," he says. "Since they are mixing in the high schools now, you would think they would be in the colleges too, but they're not."

Under a college desegregation plan Gov. John N. Dalton signed in 1978, Virginia State and Norfolk State University -- Virginia's two publicly supported traditionally black colleges -- were supposed to be the beneficiaries of a concerted "enhancement" effort. Four years later there are relatively few visible signs of improvement here at the oldest of the two schools.

The paint is peeling in many of the college's red brick buildings and the grounds are ill-kept. Chemistry labs look like museum pieces, historical replicas of a 19th Century high school classroom. "The place is neglected and in need of repair," said April Ruble, a former editor of The Virginia Statesman, the college paper, "It's sad; it really is."

State officials argue a legacy of financial mismanagement -- rather than neglect -- is to blame for many of the college's problems. In contrast, they point to Norfolk State, an urban college which four years ago negotiated a plan to cut down course duplication with Old Dominion University, its predominantly white rival located about three miles away.

Those negotiations were the first hurdle in implementing the Virginia Plan, drafted by state officials under pressure from the Office of Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education. That left the task of improving the academic programs at both Virginia State and Norfolk State, making them competitive with the state's other four-year colleges.

To measure the two colleges' progress, state and federal officials have looked to their white enrollment. By that yardstick, Virginia State regressed during the first two years of the plan as white enrollment dropped from 190 in 1978 to 151 in 1980.

In retrospect, most education experts in the state agree Virginia State -- and Smith -- were given an impossible task. "Here he is at a disadvantaged school, seeking out advantaged students," said Virginia Education Secretary John Casteen, who as former dean of admissions at the University of Virginia was a competitor of Smith's. "If Ed were selling advanced, high-technology programs, he would have had a very different set of results," says Casteen.

As it turned out, Virginia State last year did offer more advanced popular programs -- nursing and engineering technology in particular -- and as a result, white enrollment did increase. Many of the new courses, however, weren't available on the main campus; they were offered in off-campus programs, some as far away as community colleges as the coalfields of southwest Virginia.

To black leaders and educators, this was a cruel twist. If the idea of enhancement was to improve educational opportunities for the state's disadvantaged black students, then the enhancement was occurring a long way from the main campus where the student body is more than 90 percent black.

"If you're not careful, the term 'enhancement' can become crippling," said Curtis Bryan, who served briefly this year as acting president at Virginia State, "VSU doesn't need short-term effort. What it needs is a commitment from the Commonwealth to become a first-rate institution."

Some black educators say that Virginia has drifted away from the historic mission of its traditionally black colleges -- the education of black students. "If you create programs only to attract whites, it is myopic, short-sighted and it's not solving the problem," said Samuel Myers, director of the Washington-based National Association for Equal Opportunity In Higher Education.

The issue raises a fundamental contradiction in the Virginia plan and in the federal criteria that created it. Racial balance is one explicit goal of the plan but so is the preservation of the character of the traditionally black college -- for decades the only institution of higher education concerned with providing Southern blacks with a college education.

"The burden shouldn't be on black colleges to integrate," says State Sen. L. Douglas Wilder of Richmond, Virginia's top elected black official. "The state and federal government have to understand their special mission and to support it -- not to the extent that you promote segregation but that you understand that it is a mission no one else is doing."

Three years ago, Virginia State was hit by plummeting enrollment -- from 4,382 in 1977 to 3,781 in 1978. The sudden decline has been attributed in part to changes in financial aid programs, always a critical factor at Virginia State where 9 out of 10 students are eligible for assistance.

There is some evidence, school officials say, that this drop in enrollment was an unintended, but perhaps inevitable consequence of desegregation. The state's brightest black students are being wooed away by traditionally white colleges where the facilities are superior, the academic offerings more rigorous and the financial packages often more generous.

"We are losing our most academically qualified students," said John McCluskey, Virginia State vice president for management and finances. "You talk to anyone on the faculty here and they will tell you that the kind of student we once attracted is not here any more."

There have been some changes at Virginia State since the plan went into effect. The school quickly was promoted from a college to a university, with the promise that it will one day be the regional center for higher education in Southside Virginia. It was given eight new "high demand" programs -- including the popular courses in nursing and engineering technology -- at an annual cost of $317,918. And it has received more than $11 million for capital improvment projects, more than most other Virginia colleges in these tight fiscal times.

But physical improvements have been slow in coming. Campus facilities for the new programs are still under construction and many classes remain in antiquated facilities.

State officials blame these problems and construction delays on Virginia State's recent history of financial and management turmoil. Turnover in the president's office has been high and state audits have continued to show major deficiencies in record-keeping. Last month, college officials announced that Virginia State will have to ask for a special $840,000 appropriation, to cover debts caused by improper student grants and faculty student loans.

Black leaders and educators say that the college's problems stem from a history of neglect. Founded in 1882 as a teaching college for blacks, Virginia State's own history neatly tracks the state's record in race relations. After 1890 when blacks were removed from the Board of Visitors, the college was placed under the control of the state's white political establishment. That grip did not loosen until 1964, when blacks were named to the board and the college hired its first white faculty member.

"Virginia State has had to fight for its existence its entire life," said Wilder, a graduate of two predominantly black schools who has been Virginia State's chief advocate in the legislature. "It has been robbing Peter to pay Paul just to stay alive and that has gotten it into a mish-mash of accounting. The difficulty is that these problems are just being highlighted now."

Some argue that the new academic programs -- designed to give Virginia State high visibility in growing fields like mining technology -- were misplaced. "The black insitutions feel that what was devised at the state level as enhancement was not what they wanted," said McCluskey who was one of the drafters of the original plan.

Instead of creating programs for elsewhere, some college officials say the state should have concentrated on improving Virginia State's core curriculum or adding doctoral and professional degree programs. "We need more money for the physical plant, curriculum," said Arnold Henderson, vice president for academic affairs. "As long as we are shackled by these handicaps, Virginia State is going to be considered a second-rate institution."