Through no fault of their own many deserving students did not receive financial aid for college last year. Not because the money wasn't there, and not because they didn't ask for it. But because both the Congress and the Department of Education did not have their act together over proposed budget cuts and regulations governing eligibility.
All indications point to many of the same problems this year. The New England Board of Higher Education reports the government is already two months behind in printing the necessary forms.
But students can do two things, at least, to lessen them. First, apply early for all financial aid. Second, be patient and persistent in your search for funds and work closely with college financial aid officials.
Some families, confused and discouraged by reports of funding cuts and tougher government regulations, did not even apply for aid. Even loan officers at banks didn't know, until too late, how much money was available.
''This is particularly sad,'' said Barry McCarty, director of financial aid at Lafayette College here, ''because many of these students would have received the aid they needed, if not from one college or agency then from another.''
A record $16 billion in aid was distributed last year. Even more will be available for the 1983-84 academic year, and the application process is under way.
Although federal grants have been cut and it is now more difficult for families with incomes of more than $30,000 to get government-subsidized loans, private sources are stepping in to fill the gaps, and colleges are securing and reallocating more funds for financial aid.
''The truly needy are always first in line for aid,'' Mr. McCarty said. ''Unfortunately they are some of the very ones who have been frightened away by the publicity surrounding the aid cuts.''
Special efforts are also being made to aid middle-income families, the ones most severely affected by the cuts. ''In many cases,'' Mr. McCarty stressed, ''these families are eligible for assistance.'' Number of children in college, cost of the college the student plans to attend, family size and assets, and maA student could attend a high-cost college for the same cash outlay as an inexpensive institution and should not rule out any college choice on the basis of cost alone. Aid packages from several colleges should be compared before making a decision.
The time to apply for aid is now. Many colleges, particularly highly selective ones like Lafayette, prefer to have the forms filed by February. Start with your high school guidance counselor or college financial aid officer. Find out what forms each college requires and when they must be filed.
You may have to complete several forms. The Financial Aid Form (FAF) of the College Scholarship Service is required by many colleges and allows a student to be considered for most types of aid. A nominal fee ($6.50 for the first college,
In at least 30 states the FAF can be used to be considered for a state grant. Some states require a separate application. Students applying for only a Pell Grant fill out a free federal application.
You will also have to complete your college's own application forms, and yet another document if you are applying to your local bank for a Guaranteed Student Loan (GSL). If parents are divorced, colleges may require information from both natural parents.
The forms are based on federal income tax figures. If you have not yet completed your income tax return, you may estimate the figures so that the process will not be delayed. You will have an opportunity to correct the figures later on.
In fact, colleges must validate almost all Pell Grant and GSL applications against a copy of the family's income tax return. Be sure the figures on the various forms agree. Keep copies of all applications and correspondence. You will have to refer to them often during the process and even when reapplying the following year.
A lot of paper work? Yes, but worth it if it helps bring a college education within reach. A financial aid offer will vary from college to college, with some providing substantial gift aid, others building in more loans and self-help (work-study jobs).
An inexpensive state university might offer a minimal package. The same student attending a higher-cost private college might receive a more generous offer. The family contribution should remain about the same.
An aid package may vary even among similar colleges. A potential student could be more attractive (and thus more likely to be offered aid) for any number of reasons. If the student plays the oboe and the college orchestra needs an oboe player . . . or if physics majors are scarce this year . . . or if the student has a great jump shot . . . or if nobody has applied to that college from South Dakota lately, the balance may be tipped in the student's favor. Shop for a financial aid package at least as carefully as you would shop for a car.