Urban-oriented colleges and universities provide the only higher education accessible to many economically and educationally disadvantaged graduates of inner-city high schools.
But serious problems threaten such institutions in the fulfillment of their purpose, warns a new and sobering report from the Ford Foundation, long a champion of equity and excellence in education. The report, ''Backs Against the Walls,'' by Pastora San Juan Cafferty and Gail Spangenberg, also indicates what is actually being done now and can be done in the future to solve the problems.
Only ignorance of demographic shifts in the student population for the next 16 years could lull otherwise thoughtful people into indifference about the quality of education available in the urban-oriented colleges and universities.
''By 1990,'' predicts Harold L. Hodgkinson, author of ''Guess Who's Coming to College: Your Students in 1990,'' ''minorities of all ages will constitute 20 to 25 percent of our total population, while their percentage among youth cohorts will be over 30 percent.
The percentage will be much higher in the cities, and urban colleges and universities can expect their new students, like their present students, to come predominantly from the minority populations.
But whether vocational training, academic remediation (making up at last for defects in the previous education of their students), or a more traditional college-level program should receive primary emphasis in urban-oriented colleges and universities is a point of disagreement among funding bodies, faculties, and administrators of many of these institutions.
''Confused mission'' is only one of 10 problems addressed by the Ford Foundation report. The others are underfunding, cutbacks in vital programs and services, high attrition, failures in the school system, student poverty, ignoring the needs of the local community, overprizing traditional ways, undervaluing institutional cooperation, and failure to communicate.
As an example of how urban-oriented institutions can respond to local needs, Mr. Cafferty and Ms. Spangenberg cite a successful program to upgrade basic skills undertaken by Miles College in Birmingham, Ala. The setup, called SUPER (Skills Upgrading Program for Educational Reinforcement), operated after school hours in four tutorial sites in predominantly black neighborhoods and was staffed by 19 part-time retired teachers.
A cooperative faculty development project in the Hudson County-Jersey City area receives commendation for its use of workshops, informal faculty meetings, and development of teaching materials through which it tried to help faculty become sensitive to the needs and problems of disadvantaged students and expose them to new ways to teach basic skills through their courses.
The report also assesses positively the results of community outreach in Hartford, Conn., where Hispanics are the fastest-growing segment of the population, diagnostic testing at the University of the District of Columbia, planning and assessment in San Francisco, and cooperation among six public institutions of higher education in Boston. The report acknowledges that controversy continues over open admissions policies practiced by most urban-oriented colleges and universities.
This policy - and its underlying assumption that higher education should be provided for everyone, even those who have not yet demonstrated aptitude or readiness for it - evokes outspoken opposition from taxpayers who ultimately foot the bills for urban-oriented institutional shortcomings.
To prospective students, however disadvantaged their background, higher education seems the key to future economic well-being. In fact, the Census Bureau recently reported that a bachelor's degree is worth $329,000 in extra lifetime earnings for young men and $142,000 for women.
But high attrition rates and low prestige indicate that many urban-oriented colleges and universities fail to meet the expectations of their students.
Mr. Cafferty and Ms. Spangenberg think the institutions must reexamine their mission, reassess their current educational priorities, and set criteria for allocating resources.
They recommend the development of learning programs based on further learning research.
New and stronger links to a wider range of institutions in their communities, providing information and counseling to potential and former students, and overcoming funding problems are necessary steps for urban-oriented colleges and universities, they say.
America's cities need not be breeding grounds for disillusionment, illegal activities, and the failure of youth. Urban-oriented colleges and universities were founded to correct, not compound, such attitudes and behavior. This is no time to permit the perversion of their original purpose.
What happens to minority youth in this and the next decade deserves the concern of every American, those who live in cities and those who don't. Enlightened self-interest, as well as simple justice, demands the restoration of urban-oriented colleges and universities to their intended function. For further information:
''Backs Against the Wall,'' by Pastora San Juan Cafferty and Gail Spangenberg , Ford Foundation, PO Box 559, Naugatuck, Conn. 06770, $4 plus $1 handling charge per order. (Payment must accompany order.) ''Guess Who's Coming to College: Your Students in 1990,'' by Harold L. Hodgkinson, National Institute of Independent Colleges and Universities, 1717 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, Suite 601, Washington, D.C. 20036. $5. (202) 483-9434.