Will Congress let Reagan cut student aid in half?

The Reagan budget for fiscal year 1983 projects only $1.8 billion in financial aid for college students.

That's a cut of $1.9 billion, or more than half. Also, families with incomes over $15,000 would be ineligible for aid. Interest rates on federally guaranteed loans would rise significantly.

Those facts (along with the ones in the adjoining box) have the higher education community in an uproar.

At the recent annual conference of the American Association of Higher Education, held almost within shouting distance of the White House, both formal sessions and informal gatherings riveted on those facts and these implications. Particularly:

* Enrollments will drop.

* Colleges will close.

* Economy measures will mean larger classes and higher faculty-student ratios.

* This will produce fewer trained professionals at the very time that our technological society needs more and better educated workers.

* The middle-income groups will be hit the hardest.

It's been said before that many small, private liberal arts colleges will be forced out of business.

When the GI Bill began trickling out, these schools were supposed to close for lack of students--yet only a very few did.

When the baby boom was over, they were supposed to close--and a few more did.

When community colleges proliferated across the US, the small private schools were supposed to go under - and a few did.

But by and large these small quality institutions (some only moderately selective) have not only not gone out of business but have grown and apparently strengthened.

Why?

''Because,'' one journalist with two college-age children explained, ''I haven't a business to leave to my kids. What I can leave them is the best possible education.

''We'll sacrifice; both my wife and I will work; we'll give up expensive vacations; live in the old house, not the new condo.

''And we'll send them to small, selective, private liberal arts colleges if that's where they want to go and if they can get in.''

Or, as a dean of a large Midwestern university exclaimed after listening to the financial-woes blues: ''The middle class will never stand for these cuts.''

That's almost an instant cliche: ''The middle classes will never stand for it.''

But several professionals noted that middle-income families have been sending their children to college in ever increasing numbers, regardless of the financial sacrifice to them.

Why?

The reasoning goes thus. Middle-class professionals don't have farms or small businesses to leave their children. What they do have, and are providing, is at least four years at college.

They know what it means to have the tools of one's trade--and their trades start with a bachelor's degree. They want their children to have the same tools, regardless of whether their offspring take up professional careers.

They know what it means to be intellectually stimulated--academically challenged.

Hence the hue and cry raised over the change in income-level eligibility for government grants and loans coupled with drastic cuts in the amount of available aid.

College and university administrators and trustees are still turning out press releases calling friends and alumni to arms over the proposed changes in the Reagan budget and are quietly assuring themselves:

''Congress listens to the middle class and 'they' aren't going to stand for it.''

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