When Doug Williams praised the role of historically black colleges in nurturing his development ("I am a product of all black universities and colleges"), it warmed the hearts of tens of thousands of alumni of black colleges in the Washington area.

But the sad fact is that some black colleges similar to the one at which he was trained -- Grambling -- are in trouble, and black men like him are becoming a rare species on many campuses. This was not lost on knowledgeable educational observers.

"In every area -- undergraduate, graduate and professional," reports Reginald Wilson, director of the American Council on Education's Office of Minority Concerns, "the number of black males is declining at an alarming rate."

While the so-called "story of the disappearing black male" on campuses has been written about a lot in recent months -- including that increasing numbers of blacks are graduating from high school but decreasing numbers are going to college -- the reasons that it is happening have not been fully explored. Wilson worries that the reasons are too frequently traced to environmental and economic factors.

"We know social issues such as crime and drugs are factors, but I don't think we have the evidence to address that with certainty. On the other hand, we have numbers to show young blacks are choosing to enlist in the military and go to vocational and trade schools," and both these options carry little-known dangers, according to Wilson.

Pointing out that although blacks are 13 percent of the population, Wilson said they make up 27.5 percent of the Army, 15.2 percent of the Navy, 18.3 percent of the Marines and 14.7 percent of the Air Force. Wilson expressed doubt that many of these people are learning skills that will be transferable to the high-tech world of work outside.

"The majority of the people are there to learn how to fight, and firing a mortar tank or M1 rifle is not a skill that is usable outside military service. There's not a substantial number of minority kids in jobs that will transfer, such as radar operator or military pilot." Wilson, a former military pilot, said there are only about 250 black pilots in the Air Force.

Wilson, who has ruffled some military people's feathers with his views, says the jury is still out on the armed forces' contention that a significant number of servicemen are going to college when they leave military service. "Blacks even tend to reenlist more and make it more of a career than whites because it's a steady job. When a kid comes home and finds 50 percent of his mates unemployed, he hears enough horror stories to make him reenlist.

"When you ask military recruiters how many are leaving and indeed going to college, the mumbling starts," he continued. "I tell them they're sort of spinning fairy tales. No hard documentation exists. They're selling their best-case scenario. But my feeling is if significant numbers of blacks were taking college courses and earning educational benefits they used later to go to college, we wouldn't have this dramatic decline of black college enrollment."

Wilson is equally concerned that some promises young black high school graduates are made by vocational and technical schools often aren't kept. Currently, more student loans are being issued in these schools than in all community colleges across the country, Wilson says.

"According to the latest figures," he says, "approximately 40 percent of students enrolled in {vocational and technical} schools are minorities. They are promised quick employment fixes with short turnaround and that's attractive to a poor family when college costs are rising twice as fast as the cost of living."

For some people, vocational and trade schools may be worthwhile, but there is some evidence that suggests that sometimes the education these young people are paying for is not worth much. So far, not even the government, which is listing these schools as eligible for student loans, has sufficiently studied their graduation rates and levels of training.

Wouldn't it be a shame if promises made to these young people turned out to be a betrayal? One of the premises of the all-volunteer Army was that it would provide the chance for poor and minority people to further their education. It is incumbent upon the Defense Department, and those in the Congress, to see that these promises are realized.

Doug Williams is one example of what can be achieved if one is given the right choices in life. But he is only one example; there are many others throughout the business, professional and academic world who have made a great contribution, more than paying back the small investment put into them. These gains will not last if falling college attendance by black men continues. It will push back professional gains made by an earlier generation and could be a precursor of enormous trouble ahead.