For years American educators have worried about the small number of black students going on to receive Ph.D.s, the degrees that make them eligible to become the professors and researchers of tomorrow. In particular, they have been unable to explain why the number of black men who get their doctorates, small to begin with, has been cut in half since 1975.
The numbers are sobering. Of the 36,027 Ph.D.s granted in 1990, only 320 -- less than 1 percent -- were awarded to black men. And 508, or just over 1 percent, were given to black women.
Some educators suggest complex reasons having to do with crumbling inner-city schools, a lack of role models and a growing number of alternatives, such as law school, medical school and business school, that are more financially rewarding than the long grind to become researchers and professors.
But now a number of educators say another major reason there are not more black Ph.D.s is that universities, for a variety of reasons, make it easier for foreigners -- some of the best and brightest students from around the world, who are clamoring to attend American universities -- to get the financial support needed to complete six, seven or more years of doctoral studies.
Figures from the National Research Council show that in 1990 universities financially supported only one-quarter of black students with grants and assistantships, for which the graduate students essentially exchange teaching or research work for money to pay their tuition.
During the same year, universities supported 69 percent of all foreign graduate students. Of all U.S. citizens, 42 percent received such aid.
Without help, black American students who do enter graduate programs must pay for their education themselves, which generally means taking out loans. By the time they have received their degrees they end up far deeper in debt than do either white students or foreign students.
Many others, who see few black professors or graduate students around them and little chance of overcoming the financial odds against them, do not even apply to doctoral programs -- although no statistics are available. This dearth, combined with a declining number of white college graduates, leaves more TTC openings that are filled by foreign students.
The opinion that students from other countries may be favored over black Americans with similar abilities rankles some educators.
"At the heart of it is a fundamental aspect of American culture that really does value some immigrants over some American minority groups," said Frank L. Morris Sr., dean of graduate studies at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and president of the Council of Historically Black Graduate Schools. "University departments just don't believe many minorities can be successful."
Jules LaPidus, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, a Washington-based organization representing many graduate education programs, said he agreed with Mr. Morris that there was a serious problem.
"What I don't agree with," he said, "is that there is some sort of a plan or conspiracy or whatever to favor foreign students over American minority students."
Black students feel discouraged from even applying to graduate schools, says Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based research and policy advisory group.
"It has to do with expectations and assumptions," he said. "For a lot of minority kids the idea of going on for a Ph.D. is pretty darn foreign."
Meanwhile, the black students see many foreign students getting research and teaching assistantships, often coming to a university with such aid guaranteed in advance because they have very high test scores and recommendations from professors overseas.
"There clearly seems to be a move afoot to freeze out American minorities, especially black American males, from future faculty positions," he said in a recent speech to graduate school officials.
Mr. Morris' views about American universities are shared by others, including Dr. Israel Tribble Jr., president of the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship program, which is based in Tampa, Fla. McKnight provides fellowships for black students in the sciences and engineering to pursue doctoral degrees.