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College Desegregation: Virginia’s Sad Experience

ISSUE:  Spring 1982

Many of Virginia’s public high school students aspiring to enter college are failing to enroll in an academic (or college preparatory) program, and the incongruity between academic preparation and aspirations is far more common among blacks than whites. This disparity can be inferred from a recently concluded study of 1980 high school seniors. Less than 58 percent of black seniors planning to attend a public four-year college were enrolled in an academic program of study, a proportion far lower than the white students’ ratio of 79 percent. This meant, of course, that only half of the black seniors in Virginia that year could even hope to apply to selective colleges and universities. Equally obvious is this fact: the better the institution a college student attends, the better the employment and professional opportunities open to him or her. Further, inadequacies in the students’ academic preparation are likely to influence their performance in college.

Virginia has 39 state-supported institutions of higher education. Some of these institutions have an open admission policy whereby all who apply for entrance are admitted. And so, many of the 1980 high school seniors with general or vocational training were able to enter college in the fall without further academic preparation. Yet, despite the Commonwealth’s intention to make college accessible to everyone, a smaller proportion of black than white 1980 high school seniors who completed an academic high school program entered college.

The issues of the academic preparedness of Virginia’s college-bound, the equality of educational opportunity in the state, and the achievement of the state’s affirmative action college enrollment goals are interwoven. Can student admission standards at state-supported institutions of higher education be maintained despite the affirmative action student enrollment goals made under The Virginia Plan for Equal Opportunity? How may the pool of college-eligible black students be enlarged? Does equality of academic programs among public colleges and universities in the state restrict diversity in their educational missions? From a national perspective, the broader question is, how can public colleges and universities best pursue standards of excellence in a multiracial society?

The study of 1980 seniors on which this article is based consisted of two parts. The first phase covered seniors’ plans and aspirations, focusing on black students available for admission to Virginia’s post-secondary schools and colleges. The main sources of data were two surveys—one of public school seniors, another of private school seniors. In early April 1980 nearly 59,000 Virginia public high school seniors, 88 percent of all public school seniors, completed a questionnaire for Virginia’s Department of Education on their educational and vocational plans and aspirations. Statistics for black seniors in Virginia’s private schools were obtained through a survey of principals and chief officers.

The second phase complemented the first by providing information on actual enrollments. More than 5,800 public high school seniors who had participated in the Virginia Department of Education’s longitudinal survey of the 1980 high school senior class were surveyed in March 1981 to determine whether their post-high school plans had been realized or changed. Similar data on black seniors at private high schools were obtained from their guidance counselors. This survey allowed us to explore what types of students are most likely to be admitted to Virginia colleges and universities, and how race affects the fulfillment of college plans.


The statistics assembled in the first phase reveal how small the pool of eligible black seniors in Virginia is. Among the 7,125 black public high school seniors who had planned to enter college, either in the fall of 1980 or eventually, only 40 percent were currently enrolled in an academic program. Close to 31 percent were in a general program, and 29 percent in a vocational program. These ratios contrast sharply with the proportions for white seniors, of whom 61 percent were in academic, 22 percent in general, and 17 percent in vocational programs. (All the seniors in private schools were in college preparatory programs.)

Grouping college-bound seniors by the types of schools that they have chosen and by class-rank quartiles shows even greater differences in the preparation of white and black students. The highest class-rank quartile contains the greatest proportion of students enrolled in an academic program. Among seniors planning to attend a public four-year college, 76 percent of black seniors in the highest quartile have an academic background, compared to 90 percent of the white seniors.

The Virginia Plan provides “other-race” enrollment goals for each public college and university in the state annually through 1982—83. These goals require that the total number of black high school seniors entering Virginia’s four-year, historically white, state-supported institutions increase to 1,866 in the fall of 1980, with further increases in subsequent years. The total number of entering black students is to reach 2,670 by the fall of 1982. In addition, by 1982 the proportion of black students graduating from Virginia’s high schools who enter public two- and four-year institutions is at least to equal the proportion of white Virginia high school graduates who are admitted to these same institutions. According to a 1976 survey, only 8.4 percent of the black graduates of Virginia’s high schools were enrolled in the state’s four-year, historically white, state-supported institutions. The comparable figure for whites was 33.4 percent. Thus the chances of achieving parity by this fall are minimal at best.

From 1976 to 1980, the headcount enrollment of black students at the state’s 13 four-year, historically white, statesupported insitutions increased from 4,168 to 6,517, or from 5.1 percent to 7.0 percent of total undergraduate enrollment at these institutions. Black enrollment differs greatly among these schools. In 1980 black enrollment was under 3 percent at five schools. It was around 3 to 8 percent at six schools, including Old Dominion University in Norfolk and the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Black enrollment was more than 10 percent at Christopher Newport College in Newport News and 19 percent at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

None of the 13 schools met their 1980 goals, although some had radically better records than others. Altogether, the schools achieved 78 percent of the overall 1980 goal of 1,650 entering black first-year students. Figures for 1981 were not available at the time this article was prepared.


The Phase II data allow us to compare black students’ college aspirations and plans to actual enrollment. Of seniors planning to enter college the proportion of blacks was smaller than the proportion of whites, though the proportions with college aspirations were fairly close; 67 percent of black students aspired to a college education whereas 71 percent of white students did. Long-term educational aspirations, however, cannot always be immediately translated into plans, particularly among black students. The proportion of black 1980 high school seniors who actually planned to enter college in the fall of 1980 was 45 percent, less than the 54 percent of white seniors.

Most students who planned to enter college that fall were actually admitted, according to the Phase II data. Seniors’ plans accurately predicted actual enrollment for three out of four black seniors, and for seven out of eight white seniors. Further, most students had their plans fully realized in respect to their choices between in-state or out-of-state colleges, two- or four-year colleges, and private or public colleges.

Why were black students less likely to fulfill their college plans? One reason appears to be that the proportion of black seniors who planned to attend a four-year institution was higher than that of white seniors, strikingly so among those in the second and third class-rank quartiles. This difference reflects the fact that many black seniors completing a vocational program nonetheless looked forward to enrolling in a four-year college. White students enrolled in a vocational program more often planned to attend two-year rather than four-year institutions. These white students were more likely to fulfill their college plans because a student’s chance of being admitted to a two-year college is not affected by class rank. Thus it appears that a greater proportion of white than black seniors had had courses of study and had achieved class rankings that were appropriate to their hopes of attending college.

A higher proportion of black than white youths enrolled in a vocational program had specialized in business and office studies and home economics. Those interests may have encouraged them to seek a four-year college education. A smaller proportion had concentrated in agriculture, distributive education (selling, merchandising), and trade or industrial studies. In fact, only 16 percent of the black students had pursued mainly trade courses, as against 27 percent of the white students.

Admissions criteria vary among Virginia’s state-supported colleges and universities. Together, these criteria reflect the state’s commitment to provide “each citizen of the Commonwealth access to the form of higher education most appropriate to his interests and abilities.” Access is to be without “barriers, including those of race, sex and socio-economic status.” The state’s two-year colleges admit residents of Virginia, irrespective of their high school class ranking or program of study. A high school diploma is generally not required. Piedmont Virginia Community College, for exampife, admits anyone who is “able to benefit from a program at the college.” Student transfer agreements between the state’s community colleges and public four-year institutions enable qualified community college graduates to enter and to transfer course credits to four-year institutions.

Some of the state’s four-year institutions are like the community colleges, having virtually open admissions with few specific scholarship or academic requirements. For example, Norfolk State University, the larger of the state’s two predominantly black public institutions, is more flexible concerning academic preparation than most other four-year schools. Vocational courses may be presented for admission, and the university has a school of technology and a department of home economics. Norfolk State describes its mission as “emphasizing the education of persons who constitute a non-traditional clientele and are desirous of developing their full educational potential.” The institution also “serves a vital function as a provider of education for community college graduates at the upper level.”

Certainly no college with a selective admissions policy relies solely on high school program and class ranking as criteria for admission. But most of Virginia’s four-year colleges stress these criteria. For example, the University of Virginia, in a brief statement of its admissions policy, states that it “tries to select its students through careful consideration of each applicant’s total record in comparison with those of other candidates. Of all criteria, those of good character and academic achievement and promise are paramount.” The record of an in-state applicant generally must be at least equivalent to the records of students of the past five years who were able to graduate. James Madison University and some other institutions, while not specifiying admissions standards, do stress the competitiveness of their admissions. Another approach to selectivity is that of Old Dominion University. It recommends to all potential applicants that in high school they take “a full academic program up to and during the senior year.”

The size and quality of the colleges’ 1980 fall entering classes undoubtedly reflected the various kinds of recruitment efforts undertaken by these institutions. Some of the Virginia colleges were less successful than others in meeting their 1979 headcount enrollment goals, and this result may have eased their selectivity in 1980. Pressures that institutions face to maintain enrollment levels, and the academic qualifications of the students they accept, may also indirectly reinforce prospective students’ attitudes regarding what are appropriate college preparatory courses.

A rough measure of the academic selectivity of the schools is the combined percentage of students that they enroll from those who have ranked in the first, second, and third quartiles of their graduating classes as students in a college preparatory program—and from those who, as students in a general program, have ranked in the highest quartile. Among Phase II respondents enrolled in Virginia’s four-year, historically black public colleges and universities, 53 percent of the black students were from these groups. The proportions of students from these groups admitted to private four-year colleges were much higher—for blacks, 72 percent, and for whites, 82 percent. Among students enrolled in Virginia’s public, four-year historically white colleges, 78 percent of the black students and 90 percent of white students were in these categories. The latter percentages, compared with those for private colleges, reflect the especially strong drawing power that some of the state’s public colleges have for high school graduates.

The students’ Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores and their high school class ranking correlate rather closely. The scores decline by class rank quartile. However, the group of seniors reporting test scores was small—one fifth of the black seniors, and about a third of the white seniors.


Four additional Phase II findings are:

  • For black and white students, the proportions enrolled in college were greater for those who had in high school an academic rather than general program. This is in accordance with our expectations, for a general program often excludes the foreign language, mathematics, and other courses that some colleges require for admittance. However, more black vocational program graduates were likely to be enrolled than graduates of the general program. College enrollment figures were lowest for vocational program graduates who were white. (We use “college” here and elsewhere in this section to include community colleges, four-year colleges, and universities. Also, more than 95 percent of both black and white students enrolled in college were attending full-time.)

  • Further, the proportions of both black and white seniors enrolled in colleges decline as class rank declines, regardless of high school program.

  • The proportions of general program graduates enrolled in college were generally equivalent by race. This finding is as expected under conditions granting students equal opportunity and accessibility to higher education.

  • Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we find that the parity between enrollment levels of black and white graduates of general programs does not appear for academic or vocational program students.

  • Clues to the disparity among the college enrollments of black and white students with vocational and academic educations are found in the differing admission policies of the schools and the racial makeup of the school divisions from which the colleges draw sizable percentages of their students. Thus the gap in the rate of college attendance between black and white vocational program graduates is markedly reduced, especially among those of the highest class ranking, when we exclude from these percentages respondents from high schools in the Norfolk and Portsmouth school divisions, the major suppliers of students to Norfolk State. Likewise, a large proportion of college enrollees with academic backgrounds are from the Northern Virginia area, which is nearly nine-tenths white. Eliminating the Northern Virginia contingent narrows slightly the gap in college enrollments between black and white graduates of academic programs.

    Another important explanation for the difference by race in college enrollment of the academically prepared youths may well be that many black students cannot look to their parents and other relatives to finance their college educations. Only 20 percent of the black students with academic backgrounds who enrolled in college could expect their parents to provide most of the money for their expenses. The comparable ratio for white students is 60 percent. Government scholarships were to be the main source of funds for 54 percent of the black students and for only 12 percent of the white students. Only 8 percent of the black students and 10 percent of the white students expected to rely on loans. Inadequate financial resources may well be critical in turning youths away from college, from the higher-priced institutions, or from public institutions that do not have financial aid funds to offer youths who are ineligible for need-based government scholarships.

    Further evidence of the critical impact of finances on whether or not 1980 black academic program graduates who planned to go to college actually did in the fall of 1980 is found in the reports from those not enrolled as to what they were currently doing and what their future college plans were. More than 46 percent of such graduates reported that they were currently employed or in military service. (The corresponding figure for whites was 35 percent.) Another large group of black graduates had chosen to enroll in a training school offering courses in nursing, business, or some other job-related skill. Some indicated that they had postponed entering college by one year, presumably to earn money so that they might attend a four-year college. The proportion of blacks planning to enter college who did not enroll was more than twice that of whites in the same situation.

    Financial difficulties are likely to be more acute for black students, reflecting the generally small family incomes of Virginia’s black population. In 1975, according to the most recent Bureau of the Census data, the median income for black families in Virginia was $9,003, compared to $15,603 for white families. Many parents are too poor to incur indebtedness for their children’s education. True, the statefunded Commonwealth Incentive Grant Program has encouraged “other-race” enrollment at the state’s public colleges and universities. But these merit-based grants of $1,000 each are non-renewable after the first year and hence do not cover grant recipients’ continuing financial needs.

    All evidence suggests that the students graduating from high school in the spring of 1980 who did not enroll in college that autumn were, on the whole, equivalent academically to those enrolled. Nor does it appear that those who did not enroll were ineligible for admission because they had not been full-time students during their senior year of high school. Nor are the differences in enrollment between white and black academic graduates due to the sex of the graduates. Although the percentage of black women attending college is greater than that of black men—75 percent compared to 66 percent—the enrollment rate in each group is still significantly lower than that for whites. Among whites the percentages by sex are virtually the same, around 87 percent.

    In summary, then, the Phase II data show that more than a third of the black graduates of academic and general programs who were in the highest two class-rank quartiles in high school did not enter college in 1980, some chiefly because of inadequate financial resources. (The comparable ratio for white students is one-fifth.) The number of students capable and desirous of a college education but unable to enroll by reason of financial need will sharply grow when the reductions in federal aid to students become effective in 1982.

    The high school guidance counselor more consistently than any other person has influenced students’ decisions. More than 71 percent of black seniors ranked the guidance counselor as important in helping them to make educational or vocational plans. Among white seniors, 51 percent considered the guidance counselor an important influence. Perhaps an even more significant difference between the decisionmaking habits of black students and white students is that the guidance counselor was ranked as “very important” by 37 percent of the black students but by only 17 percent of the white students.

    Further, students believed that high school counseling services are adequate. A majority of students, black and white, reported using them. Distressing, though, is the fact that so many students are trying to prepare for college by taking a vocational program. They evidently underestimated the importance of academic preparation to success in college. Some students may have been urged to take vocational training by counselors and teachers who believe that learning job skills is best for all black and poor youths. But the black students were not aware that they were being improperly advised: they consistently rated their guidance counselors as available and helpful, whereas the white seniors were not as favorably impressed.

    Teachers, parents, and other adults were somewhat more important in influencing educational or vocational plans of black students than of white students. Parents without college educations, however, are usually unacquainted with the course requirements for, and the academic demands of, a college education. Some black parents may discourage their children from enrolling in an historically white four-year college because of its past segregation policies. Moreover, the traditionally black schools have a large body of loyal black alumni who help influence students’ college choices; whereas the traditionally white schools are only just beginning to have influential black alumni. Among black students, peer influence was slightly less strong than among white students.

    If high school students are to be provided with better information and more reliable counseling about what ought to be the relation between their high school programs of study and their college choices, closer working relationships must be developed between school guidance counselors and college admission officers. Some colleges have begun activities that focus on course requirements and the preparation of students for college. In addition, staff members of Virginia’s State Council of Higher Education, as part of the state’s affirmative action efforts, are now offering workshops on college admissions requirements for junior and senior high school students and their parents, as well as for secondary school counselors and teachers.

    But if the number of black students graduating from Virginia’s high schools who are eligible for admission to a range of Virginia’s postsecondary institutions is to be increased, more direct action is probably necessary. Such action may involve raising the minimum academic standards, especially in English composition and mathematics, required for the successful completion of the vocational and general programs. Philip Jackson, in Daedalus, reminds us that “those students most in need of science, math, history, and all of the other demanding academic subjects are precisely the ones who are not going on to college!” Some say that “they do not need such knowledge, given the future that will surely be theirs. To make this assumption is effectively to assure that it will prove accurate—a self-fulfilling prophecy.”


    Virginia’s colleges attracted slightly higher percentages of black than white students among our respondents. The differential decreases as class ranking falls. Among students attending four-year institutions who in high school were in the highest quartile and had taken an academic curriculum, 90 percent of black students and 85 percent of white students chose in-state institutions. For students in the lowest quartile, however, the differential was only one percentage point-—90 percent of black seniors and 89 percent of the white seniors chose in-state institutions. The out-of-state colleges and universities drawing black Virginia residents are mostly in neighboring states, in the Northeast, and in Florida and California. They include the Ivy League schools and the predominantly black Howard University in Washington, D. C.

    The appeal of the black college is strong among black Virginians. The state’s massive resistance to desegregation, following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision, has had lasting and incalculable negative effects on individuals and communities. The importance of a school’s environment to students’ learning has been ascertained in several studies. Jacqueline Fleming, for instance, after surveying racial prejudice, black separatism, social isolation, and other aspects of the social and intellectual climate of white campuses, has concluded that for some black students “the reduction in racial tension on black college campuses may offset the better resources of major American colleges, producing greater cognitive gains in addition to a well-rounded social development.” The generally small size of the black college community has no doubt among some youngsters encouraged academic achievement.

    These are among the foremost reasons why the viability of the private black college should be protected. Virginia has three historically black private colleges. Hampton Institute in Hampton, the largest of the three, has around 3,000 students, with Virginians constituting about 30—35 percent of the total. The in-state proportions are larger at Virginia Union University in Richmond, and at Saint Paul’s College in Lawrenceville. But the combined undergraduate enrollment at these three schools is only about half that at Virginia’s two historically black public four-year institutions, Norfolk State University in Norfolk and Virginia State University in Petersburg.


    Norfolk State and Virginia State are committed, under The Virginia Plan, to increase the proportions of white students that they enroll. Neither school has made much progress in attracting white students. White undergraduate enrollment at the two schools increased from 367 in 1976 to 525 in 1980, or from 3.3 percent of the undergraduate student body to 5.4 percent. This rise reflects an increase in the percentage of white students at Norfolk State, for Virginia State’s percentage declined.

    The Virginia Plan calls for constructing buildings, improving plant facilities, and expanding the range and number of programs at both Norfolk State and Virginia State so that “they are at least comparable to those at the traditionally white public institutions with similar missions.” Accordingly, among other things, curricular offerings at the two schools have been enlarged, and Eminent Scholars Programs, like those existing at other major Virginia universities, have been instituted with state funds.

    Close to 90 percent of Norfolk State’s students are from Virginia. Nearly 65 percent of its students reside in the Tidewater area, where the University is located. Also serving the Tidewater area are Old Dominion University, an historically white four-year public institution also located in Norfolk, and Tidewater Community College, which has a branch network covering three cities. The close proximity to Norfolk State of public white colleges, the reluctance of white students to enter virtually all-black institutions, and Norfolk State’s desegregation commitments force it to identify carefully its special mission and to select course offerings that support its mission. The three schools under The Virginia Plan are working together attempting to make the curriculum of each school more distinctive and to eliminate duplicate courses. Achievement of desegregation goals as well as effective use of the financial resources of the two senior schools might suggest that each focus on particular areas of study, rather than attempting to be a comprehensive university.

    Our data show that a disproportionately large number of black youths who completed vocational programs are moving directly into four-year colleges and universities. Both black and white graduates of vocational programs may find a more appropriate option to be a postsecondary curriculum stressing vocational/technical skills leading to job placement.


    In summary then, we find that higher education in Virginia remains segregated de facto, even though almost three decades have passed since the Supreme Court ruling. More than 60 percent of the black students enrolled in Virginia’s four-year state-supported colleges and universities in 1980 were in predominantly black institutions. In 1976, the figure was 72 percent.

    Critical in slowing desegregation efforts is the tracking of students in their precollege schooling. Many black high school seniors are preparing for college by studying vocational or general programs. Some officials are advocating that colleges achieve their affirmative action numerical goals by enrolling blacks who do not meet the regular admissions requirements. A wiser course of action would be for state boards and legislators to focus, on the one hand, on encouraging clarity in mission and curriculum among the state’s colleges and universities and, on the other, on helping students to exercise their freedom of choicé among available institutional alternatives. Above all, Virginia’s black high school students need better information about the quality of educational services that institutions provide, more opportunities in their precollege schooling to acquire the cognitive skills and information required for college work, and adequate resources to finance the cost of a college education.


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