It's almost time for high school seniors to receive word whether the colleges of their choice will or won't admit them. About the same time, they often hear if any financial aid will be included.
Not this year.
New and returning students have been rushing to get their aid applications in as usual. But for many of them, it could be as late as summer before they know how many dollars of federal help, if any, they will get toward next year's tuition.
Many may be deeply disappointed when the announcement finally comes. The reason: a combination of Reagan administration proposed budget cuts and changes in the criteria for student aid eligibility.
The administration wants Congress by April to bar graduate and professional students from eligibility for the Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL) program. What's more, so many other changes in GSL, the government's largest student aid program , are pending that the US Department of Education has asked colleges to cease processing GSL applications.
''In a way, the whole system is grinding to a halt just at its most crucial moment,'' observes Dennis Martin, assistant director of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
''We could really use some certainty,'' laments, Paul Aslanian, vice-president of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. ''We're up against the wall with all the wildly varying assumptions about the future. If we just knew how things were going to be, we could plan accordingly.''
Students are scurrying to apply for help in greater numbers and earlier than in years past. This is partly because they have larger needs for help during rough economic times and partly because they wish to be in position to receive whatever dollars are available.
In the basement of Strong Hall at the University of Kansas, for instance, the student financial aid office is a beehive of activity. Students, here for everything from short-term loans to campus jobs, are being urged to get their next year's financial aid applications in as soon as possible. Some are just seeking more facts about how aid programs will change; all have been urged to get their aid applications in as soon as possible.
''We're always busy here - there isn't any slow period anymore except for Christmas week,'' explains University of Kansas student financial aid director Jerry Rogers. ''There's always a lot of confusion - too many programs and too many sources. . . . But we know this time we won't be able to give out as much (aid). . . . They've (the federal government) hit us with a terrific jolt. I'm in favor of cutting back government spending, but I didn't think it would be quite this drastic in student loans.''
At this point, the education community seems united and ready for a strong fight to save aid programs.
Within the last several weeks 14 education groups have teamed up in an Action Committee for Higher Education, which has launched a major effort to combat the proposed cuts. A companion organization has a strong lobbying effort under way on Capitol Hill. Members, according to spokesman Bob Aaron, argue that federal education funding has taken an ''unfair'' 12 percent cut compared with a 4 percent slice for most domestic programs.
''Before, we tended to pretty much stay above the fray with a statesmanlike approach,'' explains Mr. Aaron.
The biggest cuts -- an estimated 50 percent slice overall out of federal loans and grants -- would not effect students until the 1983-84 school year. Some $900 million, for instance, would be cut from the Pell grant program; an estimated 1 million students now eligible for such help would be disqualified under new family income standards.
The GSL program, which has been the largest source of aid for middle-income families, would have its origination charge and interest rate raised sharply and its eligibility tightened. The federal ''work study'' program also would be reduced. And grants to help low-income students attend higher-priced schools and National Direct Student Loans (NDSL), which carry lower interest rates than GSLs , would be eliminated.
The concern at top private colleges is that aid cuts might force many middle- and low-income students into public institutions. They worry that some private schools may fold -- and that the rest will become more elitist.
A few institutions are in a better position to cushion federal aid losses than the others.
Denison University in Granville, Ohio, relies on federal help for only about one-sixth of the student aid offered. It will grant more aid applications this year than last.
The federal belt-tightening is ''nothing to sneeze at, but it's a loss we can handle at least over the short term,'' says Gina Pike, assistant director of Denison's office of financial aid and student employment.
Nonetheless, effects of the changes will be widespread. Even apparently well-heeled private colleges will feel the pinch. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., for instance, students get about 35 to 40 percent of their financial aid from Washington. The expected student aid loss, if proposed cuts pass, will be a hefty $5 million over a two-year period.
''There will be more state money, and we'll be able to do a little more,'' says Dr. James Scannell, Cornell's dean of financial aid and admissions. ''But the majority of the losses will have to be passed on to students and their families. That means, he says, families must make ''a decision as to whether to make the additional sacrifice or not.''