As about 900 students gathered for commencement exercises at Texas Southern University last week, there were no protests against investments in South Africa like the ones on college campuses across the country. This is one problem that students at historically black colleges such as TSU don't have to worry about.

What they worry about is how much has been invested in their education.

These are hard times for many of the nation's 114 traditionally black colleges and universities, not the least of the problems being that 80 percent of the 1.1 million black students now attending college are enrolled in predominantly white schools. There has been a dramatic reduction in alumni funds, cuts in federal aid and a renewed questioning of the value of having a black school system that was born in an era of inequality.

A move is under way here to merge TSU with the predominantly white University of Houston. Proponents of the merger cite the high rate of failure among TSU law school students who take the Texas bar examination. Why, they ask, is there a need for this apparently inferior school?

Just looking at the two campuses, located across the street from each other, conjures up a stark reminder of the days of separate and unequal education.

The University of Houston is a sprawling, magnificent campus that has been the home of basketball star Akeem Obdul Olajuwon and track star Carl Lewis. TSU, by contrast, is smaller, a collection of nondescript 50- to 60-year-old buildings interspersed with some temporary trailers and a few new buildings, including a modern law center.

But it is TSU that has produced 80 percent of the black lawyers in Texas and 30 percent of the state's black teachers and pharmacists.

Thus the slight against TSU seems unfair.

A few miles away, at a commencement address for students at Southern University in Shreveport, La., part of the nation's largest black university system, president Jesse Stone reflected on 31 years of education after the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954, often regarding integration with dismay.

"In our efforts to open up new vistas of learning for our youngsters, we made certain assumptions that have not been proven," said Stone, who was a prominent civil rights lawyer during those days.

"One was that, given direct competition with whites, blacks would work harder. That did not turn out to be the case. Another assumption was that blacks and whites would learn positive things from each other and, as a result, take each other more seriously. The fact is, under integration, whites still find no value in black culture except music, the ability to dance and perform athletically."

What has happened to many blacks at predominantly white schools seems to bear him out. Blacks have an extraordinarily high dropout rate, often complaining of isolation and discrimination. Inevitably, they form black organizations and petition the school to set up all-black dormitories. It makes you wonder why they didn't go to a black college in the first place.

For many students, that probably would have been a better choice. These schools remain the backbone of black America's leadership.

According to the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, black colleges have produced about 300,000 graduates every 10 years, with more than 50 percent of the nation's black business executives and elected officials coming from their ranks. About 80 percent of the black doctors, teachers, federal judges and military officials are graduates of black colleges.

So, when all is said and done, when that last walk down the aisle and across the stage has been completed, the only question is whether the student has done all that he or she could have done to succeed.

The record on black colleges shows that hard work is rewarded as much as it is at other schools, and that supporting the nation's black colleges and universities is about as good an investment as one can make.