Graduating from college is supposed to be one of the great highlights in the lives of young adults. But for many black men and women, a diploma in hand will also be accompanied by a bitter taste in the mouth.

Race relations on college campuses in 1990 have proved to be as bad as, if not worse than, they were 30 years ago.

"We are quite convinced that there's really a great deal of what we call ethno-violent tension on college campuses," said Howard Ehrlich of the Baltimore-based National Institute of Prejudice and Violence.

Etho-violence means problems across racial and ethnic lines. But for most blacks on college campuses, it boils down to a resurgence of old-fashioned racism.

Not only do whites at southern schools such as the University of Virgnia seem to think it's okay to call blacks derogatory names, but racial incidents have also contaminated such northern institutions as Harvard, the University of Massachusetts and Temple University, to name a few.

In January, student mailboxes at George Mason University in Fairfax County were flooded with literature from the neo-Nazi National Alliance that refered to Jews as "beasts" and blacks as "blood crazed."

Some colleges have been so insensitive as to hold mock "slave auctions" for entertainment. A sorority reportedly thought nothing of staging a "black face" show based on "Gone With the Wind." A white fraternity thought it was funny to require its newcomers to arrange to have pictures of themselves kissing black women.

It was alarm over this regressive state of affairs that attracted about 1,000 black college students to Washington this week to demand that the government make education its highest priority and that it be vigilant in exposing and condeming racism.

"There is something wrong with America's heart," lamented David Miller, a student leader at North Carolina A&T, echoing the sentiments of others gathered for the Collegiate Black Caucus.

Indeed, that statement suggests that black college students may also be worried about what America has in store for them after graduation. If racism on college campuses is bad, the real world could be worse.

At the University of Virginia, the first black to win a campus-wide election as student body president found himself the subject of a recall movement by whites. The move came after it was learned that the student had participated in a rally urging divestment in companies that do business with South Africa.

Before that incident, racist graffiti had been painted on a university bus stop heavily used by blacks.

Some have argued that the disrepect aimed at black students is white backlash for affirmative action programs that seek to create equal opportunity for minorities. Others say it is merely more of Ronald Reagan's legacy that made it okay to be racist again.

Either way, the scenes on many predominately white college campuses are sad and disconcerting. Cafeterias, for example, resemble southern lunch counters before the days of the civil rights movements. Blacks, heavily outnumbered in large lecture halls, sit isolated to eat and study alone.

"There is a feeling by blacks that whites don't want them to get involved in their activities and a feeling by whites that blacks don't want to be bothered with them," said Francine Z. Ashby, coordinator of minority student services at Johns Hopkins University.

Studying in college is hard enough. Just being away from home for the first time and trying to cope with new distractions is too much for some students. The last thing they need is a no-credit course in looking out for dangerous racists when their eyes and thoughts should be on their books.

But none of this, the racism or the newfound freedom on campus, should keep black students from getting the intellectual and social skills they can get in college. It could though, if they forget the spirit of their march to the White House on Sunday and stop looking out for each other.