A year ago, things looked rather bleak for college students and their families if they needed financial aid to help pay the way. Proposed cuts in federal assistance programs would have reduced the money available for student loans and grants and stiffened eligibility requirements for the remaining funds.
But now, thanks to a hard-fought and largely successful lobbying effort by educators, almost all of the federal assistance that was available in the past will be there next year.
The problem is, college financial aid officers say, all the controversy about student-aid cuts has left many people with the impression that there isn't any assistance available or that they cannot qualify for what little money is left. As a result, many students who would otherwise be eligible for aid have not bothered to apply for loans or grants and, in a few cases, have passed up opportunities to attend college entirely.
Because of the controversy, the aid application forms got to high school counseling offices several weeks late, but they should have arrived by the first of January. For students planning to attend college next year, this still leaves enough time to investigate which financial aid programs are available and which ones they qualify for.
''There has been a lot of confusion,'' said Andre Bell, director of financial aid at Northwestern University. ''Many people have come to the conclusion that money is not available. That is simply not the case.''
The Reagan administration requested about $4.2 billion for various student aid programs for fiscal year 1983. But the continuing budget resolution Congress gave Mr. Reagan, and which he signed Dec. 20, contains more than $6.6 billion for these programs.
In the guaranteed student loan program, for example, the President asked for proposal for $1.4 billion for Pell grants was boosted to $2.4 billion.
All in all, the money authorized for these and other programs is ''about the same'' amount that was available in fiscal year 1982, an aide to the House Education and Labor Committee said.
Tighter qualifications, said Marilyn Molner, a financial aid counselor at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., was one way the administration had planned to cut the amount of money spent on student loans. Under the administration proposal, all families, including those earning less than $30,000, would have had to prove financial ''need'' to qualify for a 9 percent guaranteed student loan.
That proposal was also defeated, however, and there are now a variety of ways a family can prove financial need, even if the parents are earning substantially more than $30,000. The expenses of having other children in college, for instance, could create enough of a financial need to qualify the younger child for a loan.