He might have chosen a life in academia, with his intense interest in history, his solid grade-point average and a record of undergraduate achievements capped by his election last year to his class' highest office.

But Yale senior Richard Roberts is leaning toward becoming a lawyer. Like an increasing number of young black college students, he is facing the prospect of leaving school at least $15,000 in debt and under parental pressure to enter a secure and well-paying profession.

"Both of my parents are educators, and they're trying to steer me away from that," Roberts said. "They point out that it's not as lucrative and it's a long haul. The rewards are great, the personal satisfaction from education is great, but it's not going to help you when your student loans are due."

Nationwide, increasing numbers of black students are forgoing graduate schools, citing lack of funding in the Reagan era and the economic uncertainty of academic careers.

Like immigrant groups that struggled up the economic and educational ladders, this first generation of blacks to pursue higher education is more likely to opt for quick employment or a degree program leading to professional training in law, accountancy or, sometimes, business.

"In the black community, many black students are pushed into going into the more secure areas," said Felicia Hunter, a black Yale graduate student. "Graduate school is seen as a comfortable middle-class choice, a 'white choice.' For blacks, who may be the first in their generation to go to college, graduate school is seen as a ridiculous choice.

"For many blacks, graduate school is a luxury they simply cannot afford," she added.

The preference for immediate and marketable professional skills is creating the underpinning of a growing black middle-class. But in academic circles, a question remains: What is the future of the black intellectual class and the black professoriate?

The answer holds potentially severe consequences, educators say. Blacks account for fewer than 4 percent of college faculty members nationally, by most accounts, and fewer than 2 percent at predominantly white colleges. But with fewer blacks choosing academic pursuits, the prospect is that faculties will become whiter.

In one sense, blacks are simply making the same "market choices" and showing the same job-oriented academic savvy as white students, who are increasingly abandoning graduate schools in favor of business and law.

When blacks make that choice, however, it creates a peculiar crisis because blacks are badly underrepresented on faculties of most colleges that are under increasing legal and moral pressure to hire more black professors.

"If you don't get them through graduate and professional school, there's no chance to get them on faculties," said Harvard's noted black psychiatrist, Dr. Alvin Poussaint.

Black undergraduate enrollment also is declining for the first time since peaking in the late 1970s, and many educators attribute that trend to the small number of black professors who can serve as "role models" and mentors. With even fewer role models in the future, they say, blacks may abandon higher education in even larger numbers, feeling isolated and alienated on predominantly white campuses. Black educators refer to this as the "vicious cycle" of black attrition.

Attracting more blacks into graduate schools has come to be seen as the crucial link in reversing the decline of black undergraduate enrollment. In a speech last year to the American Council on Education, Georgetown University's president, the Rev. Timothy Healy, said:

"Ultimately, if we want to integrate America's colleges and universities, to make sure that black and Hispanic youngsters have access in proportion to their numbers in the population, the key to the arch is the faculty."

"Unless we can place an appropriate percentage of black and Hispanic faculty members on all our faculties," he added, "we will never make higher education a salable product to minority students."

A year later, the picture has not changed noticeably. While statistics are difficult to ascertain, they generally show that fewer blacks are going to graduate schools and into medicine. They also show that, in areas in which black enrollment has been stable -- law, pharmacy and dentistry -- blacks attend predominantly black schools.

University of Massachusetts sociologist James Blackwell said 10,000 fewer blacks were graduate students in 1983 than in 1978, representing a drop in enrollment from 6.2 percent to 5 percent.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported recently that the percentage of blacks in the class entering medical school in 1983 dropped to 5.6 percent from a high of 6.3 percent in 1974. It said one-third of black medical students and one-fourth of black medical-school teachers were concentrated in predominantly black Howard University, Morehouse College and Meharry Medical College.

Statistics on black medical students are significant because of another study published in last week's New England Journal. It showed that minority doctors trained under 1970s affirmative-action programs tend more often to care for minority and poor patients and work in poor areas.

Several educators suggested in interviews that black professionals now taking massive loans for postgraduate studies will be less able to devote time to the poor, leaving large sectors of poverty law and inner-city medicine unattended.

"With myself and most of my colleagues, we want to get into something public interest-related," said Phil Lattimore, a black law student at American University. "But when we are confronted with insurmountable debt, it becomes a question of where do I put my priorities? There's a definite demand for someone to do poverty work, but the money is just not there."

The number of blacks in dental, pharmacy and veterinary schools has increased, but mainly at the historically black colleges. Almost three-fourths of black veterinarians are being trained at Tuskegee Institute, and more than half of black dentists at two predominantly black dental schools.

Enrollment of blacks in law school, meanwhile, has been steady for five years, while the total number of law students has dropped.

Blackwell and others trace the decline of graduate enrollment of blacks directly to the financial-aid cuts and rules changes under the Reagan administration. These have affected virtually all programs designed to increase minority representation in graduate schools.

Administration officials insist that no correlation has been proven between aid cuts and the declining number of blacks in graduate and professional schools. In an interview, Education Undersecretary Gary Bauer echoed the sentiments of many when he suggested that young black college graduates, like an increasing number of whites, simply find business careers more lucrative than academia. On that point, even black critics of the administration agree.

"Recruiters . . . offer them a decent salary, and they go," said Frank L. Matthews, an assistant senior vice president at George Mason University. "But that does not help them 15 years down the line. You're not going to have blacks in front of the classrooms, which means you're not going to have role models, which means blacks will not persist as undergraduates, and we're into a vicious cycle."

Matthews said blacks risk becoming "a kind of intellectual boat people -- we're out there drifting." Whereas blacks have historically been discoverers and inventors, like George Washington Carver and Dr. Charles Drew, Matthews said:

"I don't expect a lot of new discoveries to come from these type individuals anymore. They're going to come from Bell Labs, and Bell Labs only hires PhDs."