A progress report on the status of blacks in American higher education reveals an extraordinary gender gap: Black women now are earning college degrees at twice the rate of black men.

The number of black women earning bachelor's degrees has increased by 55 percent since the mid-1970s, the report notes, compared with an increase of 20 percent among black men. The differences are even more profound in the areas of law or medicine: Among black women, the number of degree earners has soared 219 percent. But for black men, it has increased only 5 percent. The number of black men earning master's degrees since the 1970s has actually dropped by 10 percent. It has risen 5 percent for black women.

Researchers said yesterday that they are somewhat puzzled by those trends, especially since black women overall tend to earn lower college admission test scores than black men and take remedial college courses more often. Gender gaps in college enrollment and degrees also are evident among white students, but they are not nearly as large.

"It's something we're definitely going to investigate," said Michael Nettles, who coordinated the report for The College Fund, a coalition of the nation's historically black colleges and universities. "There's no single, obvious explanation for it."

The report, which relies on data compiled by the Department of Education and other studies, draws a broad portrait of the participation and success of black students at the nation's colleges and universities, compared with a generation ago.

Its conclusions are mixed. Overall, college enrollment among blacks has increased slightly over the last decade, but African Americans continue to be underrepresented on campuses in proportion to their share of the overall population. Even with the significant gains black students are making, they have yet to reach parity with white students. Today, about 21 percent of whites ages 25 to 60 have bachelor's degrees, compared with 14 percent of blacks.

Black students also are still more likely than whites to drop out of college, and they depend much more than whites on financial aid. Nearly one-third of black students attending four-year universities had family incomes below $20,000, compared with 9 percent of white students.

"The data show that African Americans have made considerable progress, but many hurdles remain," said William H. Gray III, the College Fund's president. The group's former name is the United Negro College Fund, and it is based in northern Virginia.

Some of the report's most striking findings focused on gender. Overall, the number of black women going to college continues to exceed the number of black men. In 1976, black women were 10 percent more likely than black men to attend college; today, that figure is nearly 25 percent.

The report also details how, as undergraduates, black women tend to gravitate toward business or management studies. As graduate students, a high number of black men study education, and black women tend to earn degrees in public administration.

One figure that also struck researchers is that a majority of black women -- 55 percent -- who are attaining degrees come from the neediest economic backgrounds. "Many of these statistics are real cause for celebration for black women," Nettles said.

The report detailed other findings: More black students are taking graduate school admissions tests, and their scores are rising. Only 3 percent of college students who receive doctorate degrees are black. About 5 percent of university faculties are black, and they receive tenure less often than white faculty. Also, since the 1970s, the percentage of black students attending historically black colleges has declined.