ROUGHLY 85 percent of the students who enter the University of the District of Columbia are not prepared for college-level courses. They require remedial work in English, math and, sometimes, reading. Unfortunately, many of them have little confidence in their abilities and do not even survive the basic skill courses. That was why UDC's recent president, Rafael L. Cortada, pressed for a separate community college for those students.

But the UDC board of trustees opted for a different and riskier tack, staking UDC's future, in part, on a "developmental education" plan that will give weak students the kind of course work, counseling and advisory help that will enable them to obtain a four-year degree. The main question is simple: can it work? Only if UDC displays the kind of internal unity that has been lacking in the past.

According to the university's "strategic plan" report, adopted by the trustees late last year, UDC's full-time faculty have shown little interest in running developmental courses, a high percentage of which currently are taught by part-time, contractual teachers. Remedial courses have also been viewed by faculty and students as a dumping ground. The success of those courses has also been hampered by a lack of both emphasis and resources.

Making the developmental plan work, according to the report, will require making the courses it involves important and respectable within the university. A larger share of university resources must also be devoted to the program. The goal would be to create a system that educates weaker students so well that they are able to catch up and handle college-level work. That's a tall order, but an appropriate one, given the fact that so many of the students who seek an education at UDC arrive there poorly prepared for the kind of work that will lead to a meaningful degree.

How does this fit into the university's search for a permanent replacement for Dr. Cortada? Perhaps the board should now look for a proven urban college or university administrator, one who has displayed some success in working with students similar to those found at UDC.

The past three UDC presidents were forced to steer a course for an institution that really had never agreed on a clear mission or purpose, other than the fact that it was an open admissions university. If UDC has now decided to emphasize the building of "basic educational survival skills" for academically weak students, an actual mission has at least been brought into clearer focus. That should help guide the selection process for a new president and buttress that president's push for change.