The annual undergraduate college dollar sweepstakes are under way. Competition is stiff and the rules uncertain, but the stakes are high.
Congressional resolutions and federal budget acts have slashed appropriations for student financial aid and made piecemeal changes in regulations that have created confusion and concern among college financial aid directors and the public alike.
The aid program as we know it is changing dramatically. However, $16 billion in public and private aid will be awarded this year, and 3 million students will receive assistance in paying for college.
Some funding and loan programs expire this fiscal year (June 1). Hence the prudent student will build an aid package as quickly as possible.
Some awards may not be as generous as in the past. A student may have to borrow more and work at a part-time job. That's the ''bad'' news, but the ''good'' news is that a college education is still financially possible for almost anyone.
Even more important, with financial aid college may still be affordable regardless of cost, and a student should not rule out a college of interest on the basis of expense alone. Tuition at some colleges may be higher, but so may the aid budget.
College aid officers are more determined than ever to try to ensure an education for an able student in need, and private colleges in particular are drawing upon alumni support and the strength of their endowment to allow them to continue offering aid to a substantial portion of the freshman class.
For example, my college, Lafayette, a small (2,000 students) private college in Easton, Pa., is fairly typical of the nation's selective independent liberal arts colleges. At Lafayette 60 percent of the applicants who are accepted to the college and show need are offered the aid they need.
A financial aid package at such a college for the 1981-82 year might consist of a federal Pell Grant of up to $1,670, a state grant of up to $1,350 for a Pennsylvania student, a work-study job that might yield $800 or $900, and a National Direct Student Loan of up to $1,500 at 5 percent, with payments beginning six months after graduation. Add to that a possible grant from the college itself and even the most expensive college can become affordable.
A Guaranteed Student Loan of up to $2,500 can also be obtained if a student needs still more assistance.
Some colleges, including Lafayette, make it a practice to continue the aid if needed for each of the four years, but not all can do this. Barry McCarty, director of financial aid at Lafayette, advises that a student inquire about such renewal of aid before beginning study.
The key to most aid is need. If you don't need it, you won't get it - and you just can't ask for it but have to prove you need it.
Gone are the days of convenience loans for the well-to-do at government expense, but the changes should have little effect on the neediest students, and a family making $30,000, $40,000, or even more may still be eligible for aid. Although there are cutoff limits for some kinds of aid (federal Pell Grants are at present available only to families with incomes of $25,000 or less, and that figure may be lowered even further), most aid is awarded on the basis of a comprehensive need analysis, which takes many factors into account.
Many colleges require the family to fill out a Financial Aid Form (FAF), which is sent with a fee ($6.50 for the first college) to the College Scholarship Service of the College Board. In some states a student must complete an additional application for state and federal aid, which is processed without charge by the government. Forms are available from any high school counselor or college financial aid officer and should be completed as soon as possible after Jan. 1.
The applications come with detailed instructions and ask for such information as family income, assets, size, number of children in college, and unusual circumstances which may affect the family's ability to pay for college.
If the student lives at home, the form is filled out by the parent. If the student is self-supporting, the figures apply only to the student's household. If parents are divorced or separated, many colleges also require the noncustodial parent to fill out a financial form and take that information into consideration when awarding aid.
After the forms are processed the family receives an estimate of how much they would be expected to contribute that year toward a son's or daughter's education. This figure is carefully reviewed by college financial aid professionals and may be adjusted.
Under ideal conditions that amount should be all the family should have to pay out of pocket toward college costs - for any college - with the rest being made up through a combination of grants, loans, and a part-time job. It is still possible for a student to attend a college with total costs in the neighborhood of $9,100 for the same family outlay as for a state college with total costs of about $4,300.
When applying for aid, remember these pointers agreed on by experienced financial aid officers.
* Your college financial aid officer will have up-to-date information on changing regulations and criteria.
* Carefully read the directions on the forms and be sure to fill out both sides.
* Apply as early as possible. Although the form refers to corresponding lines of your income tax return, it is not necessary to complete your tax form before filing for aid. If figures must be corrected later, you may file an amended form. This also applies to pending family changes such as divorce, separation, employment, etc. Do not delay filing for aid until matters have been resolved.
* Since the FAF depends upon the ''snapshot concept'' of estimating the value of your finances on a given day, Mr. McCarty stresses, ''A family should be honest but not blatantly unfair to itself. Don't pick the day you have just deposited a month's salary - and before you pay your bills. In estimating the market value of your home, don't assume you will have the leisure to wait to get the best price, but instead estimate how much you would get for your home if you had to sell it in a reasonable length of time.''
You may be denied aid, but then again, you may receive it - if not from one college perhaps from another - and should therefore apply to several colleges and compare aid packages before making a decision. You'll never know, of course, unless you ask.