A college education is still the best ticket for racial equality in pay -- if you're a woman. For black men, however, college has done little to change the pay gap over the past 10 years.

"The notion that a college education can contribute to closing the economic gap between blacks and whites appears to hold true for women," economist Joseph R. Meisenheimer II writes in the upcoming edition of the Monthly Labor Review. "But the theory may be questioned in terms of men because substantial economic differences still exist between college-educated black and white men."

Meisenheimer, who works for the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, which publishes the labor review, said a study of the wage gaps between whites and blacks between 1979 and 1989 showed black men made very little progress in closing the salary differences.

To make sure no one misunderstands the value of a higher education, Meisenheimer points out that a "college education does provide considerable economic rewards above those generally received {by those} with only a high school education."

The study of the differences in earnings and educational attainment between 1979 and 1989 shows a narrowing of the education gap during the 10-year period. In 1979, 9 percent of all blacks between the ages of 25 and 64 had completed four or more years of college, while 19 percent of all whites had achieved the same education level. By 1989, the number of blacks with four or more years of college had reached 19 percent, compared with 24 percent of whites.

When those statistics are broken down by sex, race and age, there is a dramatic shift in the education picture. For starters, a greater percentage of blacks who go to college are women. In 1979, according to the study, 53 percent of blacks who graduated from college were women. In the same year, 40 percent of whites who graduated were women. By 1989 those numbers were 54 percent and 44 percent, respectively.

The study also showed that black women, once they graduated from college, had a much higher work force participation rate than did white women with a college education, although the gap narrowed over the 10-year period. More than 86 percent of black, college-educated women worked in 1979, compared with 70 percent of white women. Those numbers were 88.4 percent and 80.4 percent in 1989, reflecting the sharp increase in two-income families.

"To shed some light on the gap in labor force participation," Meisenheimer writes, "it is helpful to look at the marital status of women of each race. In all four educational levels, a smaller proportion of black women than white women is married. In 1989, less than half of black college-educated women lived with their husbands, compared with more than two-thirds of college-educated white women."

The study showed that, in 1979, 83.7 percent of married black women were in the work force compared with 63.2 percent of married white women. In 1989, those numbers were 85.7 percent and 75.1 percent, respectively.

"The difference in labor force participation rates between black and white married women may be partly explained by the labor force experience and educational level of their husbands," Meisenheimer writes. "If a husband is not employed or, if employed, has relatively low earnings, the wife is more likely to work."

Meisenheimer said, "The husbands of college-educated black women have less schooling than the husbands of white women. Half of the husbands of college-educated black women have completed four years of college, compared with 72 percent of the husbands of college-educated white women."

What does all this mean for earnings? Meisenheimer said the statistics show that it is still a white man's world. "When all 25- to 64-year-old earners are compared, black men earn considerably less than white men, while black women on average earn considerably more than white women."

In 1979, according to BLS, college-educated black men had median earnings that were 80 percent to 90 percent of the earnings for white males. By 1989, that ratio had dropped to between 72 percent and 79 percent of the median income for whites males. The biggest change for black men over the 10-year period was in the younger age group -- the 25- to 34-year-old category -- where the gap widened by nearly 10 percentage points.

By contrast, the study showed that college-educated women of both races had similar median earnings.

Meisenheimer suggests the answer may be that, in general, women of both races tend to work in the same fields, such as teaching and health care. In contrast, he wrote, "black and white college-educated men have sharply different occupations." He noted that fewer black men were managers or employed in professional specialties than were white men, a fact reflected in their lower incomes.