If parents think financing the college education of their offspring has become tougher, they are right. Reversing the pattern of the 1970s, during the first few years of the '80s tuition and other university costs have risen, on average, faster than inflation or incomes. Moreover, the amount of financial aid per full-time student has dropped in constant dollars. A study by the College Board concludes: ''. . . College has become relatively more difficult for families to afford in the 1980 s.''
Financial aid grew dramatically in the 1960s and '70s. But the total real (inflation-adjusted) value of student aid decreased 21 percent during the early '80s.
Thus parents can be less certain of getting generous financial aid for their college-age children. And, the experts say, they should apply as early as possible.
Despite the drop-off in financial aid in the last few years, mostly because of changes in federal programs, today's families have more income and student aid relative to the costs of college than they did 20 years ago, according to the College Board study. Since 1963 there has been a 278 percent real increase in total aid per ''full-time equivalent'' (FTE) student and a 149 percent real increase in grants per FTE student. That far outpaces the rise in college costs.
Between 1980-81 and 1982-83, however, real increases in college costs ranged from 4 percent at community colleges to 15 percent at private universities. Real disposable personal income remained the same in those years, and real median family income dropped 5 percent. At the same time, total aid per FTE student dropped 21 percent and grants per FTE student fell 26 percent.
The reason is the federal government's decision to cut student aid programs. In 1981 Congress rejected most of the administration proposals to cut student aid programs. But it did agree to phase out social security student benefits. It also reinstituted an income ceiling on the Guaranteed Student Loan program and halted expansion of Pell grants.
Further, some Vietnam veterans began to reach the end of eligibility for education assistance under the GI Bill.
Changes in federal aid programs have contributed to another trend: The proportion of aid awarded through grants vs. loans has varied sharply. From 1970 -71 to 1975-76, grant aid increased from 66 to 80 percent of total aid awarded, while loans decreased from 29 to 17 percent. This trend reversed itself in the mid-1970s as veterans' benefits began to drop. Then, in the late '70s, Guaranteed Student Loans began their spectacular growth. The College Board estimates that in 1983-84, the proportions of total aid awarded as grants and as loans will be about equal, at 48 percent each. The remaining 4 percent derives from work-study support.
With aid becoming slimmer, parents may have to consider more seriously saving in advance for the education of their children. Most of the major money management books contain sizable chapters on the topic of financing education.
There are entire books (e.g., ''The Dow Jones-Irwin Guide to College Financial Planning,'' by Paul M. Lane) and numerous pamphlets on financing education. Individual colleges offer guidance, too, and there are also services offering computer searches for possible scholarships or other sources of financial aid. These searches, however, are not cheap.
With stiff competition for students, some colleges are offering generous scholarships to attract especially bright students.
And some students who have taken accelerated high school courses may skip to sophomore status, saving a year of costs. But other young people may be forced to consider education costs carefully. Four years at a state university nowadays costs about $17,500; at an average private university, around $30,000.