The number of black students receiving doctoral degrees has dropped by nearly 27 percent in the last decade, according to a recent National Research Council report, fueling concern that colleges will face severe shortages of minority faculty for years.
The survey reported that the number of doctorates going to black students dropped from 1,116 in 1977 to 820 in 1986, which is the most recent figure available.
Among men, the number fell during that period by more than half, from 684 to 321. That steep decline overwhelmed a slight increase in black female recipients, whose numbers grew from 432 to 499.
Also, black doctorates were heavily clustered in the field of education, the study showed. More than half, or 421, of the 820 recipients majored in education, compared with only 14 in engineering, 25 in the physical sciences, 70 in humanities and 163 in social sciences.
The survey results underscore what many educators have cited as a crisis of shrinking minority participation in higher education at all levels.
"This is one of many evidences around of a disaster," said Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education (ACE).
While black enrollment increased during the 1970s, it declined more than 3 percent between 1980 and 1984, according to the education group. The percentage of black high school graduates entering college and the number of blacks receiving degrees at all levels have dropped.
Enrollment of Hispanics and Asians has increased. But minorities, who comprise more than 21 percent of the population, constitute only 17 percent of college enrollment.
Atwell warned that the new figures signal future problems, not only because colleges will be hard-pressed to hire minority faculty, who are drawn from the ranks of doctoral-degree recipients, but also because of repercussions for undergraduate enrollment.
"Without the role models in the classroom, it's going to be harder to attract and retain black students at the undergraduate level," he said.
At the same time that the number of black doctoral candidates is dropping, fewer blacks are studying medicine, dentistry, law or business in professional schools.
Reginald Wilson, director of the ACE's Office of Minority Concerns, said that, between 1976 and 1984, the number of blacks enrolled in professional schools dropped from about 10,000 to 9,721.
Educators attribute the decline in minority graduate enrollment to decreased federal student aid and the attraction of lucrative careers that require only a bachelor's degree, especially in engineering and other technological fields.
Many have said they believe that fewer blacks enrolled as undergraduates because of the rising cost of college, declining financial aid and an increase in the number of young people choosing military service or trade schools.
"It's a very critical matter," said Charles Lyons, former president of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. In part, he blamed colleges and universities for backing away from affirmative-action programs.
"The political climate has changed," he said. "Affirmative action has not been a very important concern for the past seven years."
The survey contained further evidence of another trend that has caught the attention of the academic community: the growing number of foreign students, particularly in engineering and the physical sciences.
The percentage of doctorates earned by U.S. citizens, for example, declined from about 86 percent in 1962 to about 72 percent in 1986, while the percentage of temporary visa holders grew from about 11 percent to about 17 percent.
Wilson pointed to a few programs designed specifically to encourage black undergraduates to enter graduate school, including the McKnight Foundation Black Doctoral Fellowship Program in Florida and the Graduate Engineering for Minorities program housed at the University of Notre Dame.
But such programs are insufficient to turn around the declining national numbers, he said.
"You have to raise salaries and provide additional financial incentives" to draw more minority students into academic careers, said Allan W. Ostar, president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.
He called for increased financial assistance for graduate students and criticized new laws that make federal income tax payable on scholarship or work-study funds not designated for tuition.
"We keep putting up roadblocks and then wondering why we don't have more people," he said.