Is student aid a right?

By , Vance McMahan and Joseph Rodota attend Stanford University and are involved with financial aid planning there.

Today's student has to study more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

He has to study student aid.

And in today's political arena, that's a real challenge. One week, students march on Washington protesting the federal financial aid cuts they claim will undermine higher education in America. The next week President Reagan interrupts his vacation to say these same college students have been ''simply misled.''

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Why does such confusion exist over the effects of these cuts? And what will be their real impact? Perhaps a total rethinking is in order.

We American college students are confused because we have failed to educate ourselves. Many of us have forsaken objectivity and let our emotions and misperceptions be our guide. We have ignored the final examination question: is financial aid a privilege or a right?

From the cuts already enacted and those on the drawing board, it is clear that the student aid ''gold rush'' is over. Quite simply, the program had become , in the words of Education Secretary Terrel Bell, ''too generous.'' The question now becomes whether these cuts correct abuses, provide assistance to the truly needy, and still keep America's college system intact.

The Guaranteed Student Loan Program allowed some families to turn a tidy profit by investing their son's or daughter's subsidized loan in the money market. This blatant abuse of the program's intentions ''was indefensible, even in affluent times,'' Harvard president Derek C. Bok admits. Last summer Congress established an income ceiling and a ''needs test'' limiting subsidized loans to those families who genuinely need to borrow to see their children through college.

It seems the federal programs for the impoverished student will be left largely unscathed. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant is not in danger and, according to Mr. Reagan, there is a ''veritable laundry list'' of help available to those who demonstrate need.

Clearly the brunt of the cuts will hit a tired target: the middle-income majority. Their fate and that of the entire American college system are linked inextricably. Do Mr. Reagan's proposals spell doom for the average college student and therefore the college he attends?

Evidently not. But hard choices will have to be made. As grants dry up, students will have to rely more upon loans; as costs of borrowing rise, it will become more expensive--though by no means impossible--for our younger brothers and sisters to earn their college degrees.

Tomorrow's students will be forced to look long and hard at the costs and benefits of the college experience. Resources still will be available to those students who really want to attend college. Creative financing programs have sprung up on many campuses. Donors, state governments, and colleges themselves in many cases have stepped in to take up the slack.

There will be hardships. Graduate students probably will lose their loan subsidies. Private colleges lacking the endowments of Harvard or Stanford will be unable to match the federal government's previous generosity and thus may lose many, if not all of their students to the public school system. We're not demographers, but the declining enrollments seem to be the inevitable result of the passing of the ''baby boom'' generation.

Regardless, what we're looking at here is a philosophical question: is the federal government or the individual student and his family the ultimate guarantor of our bachelor's degrees?

We haven't had to think about this in the past. To us and our parents it looked as if federal money would always be there when we needed it. But with the current budgetary crisis, we now must reconsider the proper extent of the government's commitment.

In his annual report, Harvard President Bok said that ''in times of austerity and fiscal restraint, one can strongly support federal outlays only insofar as they serve some public purpose that transcends the private ends of the immediate beneficiaries.'' Obviously, the public benefit in helping someone who has talent but no hope of financing a college education is real. But, handing money to middle-income students who would have been able to finance their own education--with some sacrifices--yields no public benefit that can be justified in the face of the staggering costs. Beyond helping the truly needy and supporting public colleges and universities, the federal government has no mandate to support every student's individual college plans.

''Ideally, there should be no cutbacks in federal aid programs,'' an editorial in the Stanford Daily recently stated. This stance clashes with the congressional bipartisan consensus and our conception of the proper governmental role in financing higher education.

The question is no longer if to cut, but where.

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