OVER 90 PERCENT of white college students in North Carolina attend the 11 public colleges that were once officially restricted to whites, over 90 percent of black college students attend those five colleges to which blacks were previously restricted. That is the circumstance behind the college desegregation plan, as agreed to by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare and the State of North Carolina. This continuing segregation has not been just a consequence of the freely taken choices of individual students or of their whereabout or academic skill. Rather, it has resulted in large part from the reinforcing effect of college enrollment along racial lines in the state's once legal dual system of higher education; and it has also been caused by decisions state officials have made in the post-desegregation era that have had the unintentional effect of maintaining that dual system.

When segregation by race was legal, identical academic programs were created at public white and black colleges.State officials have allowed many of those programs to continue intact, a practice that sustains the racially differentiated enrollment pattern. Also under the dual system, the black colleges got smaller budgets and their faculties smaller salaries, which has resulted in physical plants and academic programs decidedly inferior to those of the better-funded white colleges. Such as chronic lack of adequate funding has kept the black colleges from competing effectively for students of major new academic programs. This only serves to perpetuate their second-class status.

Now, however, North Carolina officials have told HEW (which itself is under a federal court order on this matter) they will strengthen the black colleges by improving their physical facilities and raising faculty salaries, and providing more racially mixed faculty, administration, and governing boards through out the the state system. Most important, the officials also promised to increase the racial diversity of the students body at its schools. One way they can change the student enrollment pattern is by not approving any new identical academic programs for black and white colleges and by pruning neighboring black and white colleges as much as possible of unnecessary duplicate programs. In this way a student's choice of a college would be influenced more by the programs offered than by its racial identity. Segregation was fostered and maintained through these duplicate programs; desegregation can be fostered by eliminating them.

As evident as the degree of racial separation in the state's colleges is, North Carolina's desegregation plan, which has attracted far more attention than those of five other states HEW has accepted, was approved only after a protracted, frequently bitter debate. One reason for the difficulty is that North Carolina's dual system was among the largest of all the states. Another is that state officials in recent years have made efforts to increase the integration of the state's white and have placed some new programs at the black colleges. Those efforts promted HEW to give the state more leeway in formulating a plan than it gave other states. That, in turn, has prompted some civil-rights advocates to criticize the plans as weak.

In our view, however, there isn't anything included in or excluded from the plan can obscure the clear intent of the federal court order and HEW's guidelines: State officials are to act quickly to eliminate all trace of the discredited dual systems.