THE STATE OF Virginia is right when it says that it is making good progress, and showing good faith, in desegregating its colleges and universities. Since things are currently proceeding well, it asks to be relieved of further supervision by the federal government. But the request is premature -- a gesture by Gov. Charles S. Robb's outgoing administration to draw attention to its achievements. The question won't come up seriously until next year.
Under the present procedure, Virginia has negotiated a plan with the federal Education Department's Office of Civil Rights, setting out the goals that state and federal officials agree the colleges could reasonably be expected to pursue. For example, it establishes targets for the number of black freshmen to be admitted to the various colleges. The Office of Civil Rights audits the plan and measures progress by the standard to which the state earlier agreed.
It's a valuable exercise. The most recent federal report on Virginia, in early July, generally commended the state but devoted much attention to one continuing dilemma, the condition of Virginia State University in Petersburg. Virginia State is one of the traditionally black institutions and, state officials reply, its failure to meet its goals is due to its poor management rather than to insufficient state support. But the dispute goes far beyond administrative efficiency. If Virginia State is to attract more white students, it will have to be built into a different kind of college. Its supporters, many of them black, point out that it now fulfills a special mission of educating those youngsters whom history and local school systems have left poorly prepared for college work.
Another side of the same dilemma appears at the University of Virginia, which last year admitted fewer than half as many black students as the plan called for. The university has decided that it is not only wasteful but cruel to admit inadequately prepared students in order to be counted in federal reports, and then send them off in failure a year or two later. That judgment is unquestionably right, and like the situation at Virginia State it suggests the limits to statistics as a measure of desegregation.
Most of the state's progress in desegregating higher education has been made only recently, under a governor whose term is now ending. Before the federal Office of Civil Rights seriously considers releasing Virginia from further supervision, it will need to assure itself that the present momentum is going to be maintained under Mr. Robb's successor.
The question of releasing Virginia -- or any of the 13 other states with similar plans -- is in any case not immediate. For Virginia, it will come up next June when the current plan expires. Then the Office of Civil Rights, with a federal judge looking over its shoulder, will have to decide whether the state has in fact removed the vestiges of the segregation that was once enforced by law, and whether it has done everything that it can usefully and reasonably do to make its colleges and universities equally accessible to all of its citizens. Virginia is moving steadily toward that point. But it isn't there yet.