I don't know what precise message the letters contained, but the sense of it was: Ben Alexander is serious; second notice. The letters--informing 1,200 students at the University of the District of Columbia that they are suspended and must leave the school for at least one semester, and notifying another 1,700 that they're on academic probation--reflect UDC president Benjamin Alexander's determination to increase the value of a diploma from the school.

Students who fail to maintain a 2.0 grade-point (equivalent to a C) average are not permitted to take a full course load the following semester. If they fail to bring up their average, they are suspended. The policy is three years old. Its enforcement began with last summer's arrival of Alexander, a former member of the D.C. Board of Education, from Chicago State University, where he had been president for eight years. It is a most encouraging development.

UDC is an open-enrollment, low-cost public university whose 14,000 students, most of them black, are graduates of the city's still-troubled public school system. That combination of factors forces a painful choice between high standards and sympathy for students whose educational backgrounds are less than ideal.

A number of presidents of predominantly black colleges have vowed to raise standards, only to be derailed by harsh reality: either insist that their students both make up their deficits and perform at an acceptable college level, thus achieving more than their less-disadvantaged counterparts; flunk them out at discouragingly high rates and run the risk of having the school accused of abandoning its mission, or roll back the standards and reduce the value of the school's diploma.

"We will not lower standards, because there you are coddling students, and you're crippling them," Alexander said in a recent interview. "Many students have come through high schools over this country and they were not prepared, but remember, not only does UDC admit those student; Harvard admits those students, Yale admits them . . . we all admit students of that type. Now if they come here, we give them remediation help if they're willing to do it . . . We contact them and say to them we have these things to offer--after school hours."

That's one part of the Alexander approach. The other, gutsier, part is that students who don't accept the extra help, or who fail to benefit sufficiently from it, are put on probation, then dropped. "I'm very pleased to have open admissions," Alexander said, "for the simple reason that everybody will be given an opportunity to come to UDC if they wish. I have no right to say to a person 'You cannot become a lawyer or a doctor or a a professional person.' I have the right to give that person the opportunity." But if he proves unable or unwilling to perform at the college level, "then it's my job to let that person go. There are other jobs in the world that are equally important as being a college graduate. . . . Is a schoolteacher more important than a truckdriver? This society says yes. I don't say that."

That doesn't mean that the 1,200 recently suspended students are destined to be truckdrivers. It does mean that if they pull up their socks and manage to graduate from UDC, they will earn a diploma that means something. That isn't an easy thing to accomplish, but Ben Alexander is determined to do it.