In general outline, government-subsidized student aid seems safe for another year.
The Reagan administration asked for big cuts; the new, 1986 budget agreement authorized small cuts. Congress will decide exactly where those cuts come. But most students in college, and families planning for college ahead, can expect at least another year of business as usual.
And after that? We wait and see. The administration intends a broad, philosophical redesign of the student-aid system, one that will have a significant effect on the type of school that middle- and lower-income students can afford to attend. That battle will be pressed again next year, when the whole student-aid program comes up for reauthorization.
But first, the outlook for next year's student-loan applications:
*Outright grants, such as Pell grants for lower-income families, will be available on the same basis as they were this year, plus an inflation adjustment, according to Charles Saunders of the American Council on Education.
*Subsidized student loans (current interest rate: 8 percent) may undergo a modest paring. Sen. Robert Stafford (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate education subcommittee, is considering at least one change that will affect students directly. He would tighten up on the definition of an "independent student," who applies for aid on the basis of his own income rather than the income of his parents.
Right now, a student from a well-to-do family could leave home for a year, then qualify for a vast store of federal aid based entirely on his own, low income. Stafford believes that to be considered financially independent, students should be off their parents' income-tax returns for two years instead of one, as present federal law allows. (Two years are already required in his home state of Vermont.)
The senator might pursue two other reforms for next year:
*He would end subsidized loans for students from families with incomes of $60,000 and up.
*He would permit several different student loans to be consolidated into a single loan, after the student leaves school, to stretch out repayments for more than 10 years. But he thinks that higher-income borrowers should pay a higher interest rate than those with middle incomes.
Stafford's other 1986 budget-cutting proposals would affect the loan program's administration. He wants the states to pick up a larger portion of the default losses. He wants student loans to be paid out one semester at a time instead of all at once at the start of the year -- to avoid lending unnecessary money to students who soon drop out of school. He also would reduce the subsidy payments made to banks that participate in the program.
The latter change could affect students indirectly. Carl Modecki, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, told my associate, Virginia Wilson, that if bankers can't make all the profit they want on student loans some of them might reduce the number of loans they offer. But it's hard to know whether that's a likely outcome of Stafford's modest proposal or a threat to try to frighten Stafford off. Each state has a student-aid office that helps students find loans if their local banks don't give them.
Stafford's suggestions are still just that: suggestions. Even if the Senate goes along with him, the issue then goes to the House, where Rep. William Ford (D-Mich.), head of an education subcommittee, has said that cuts in the student-loan program should be postponed until next year, when Congress takes up the total overhaul of student aid.
The larger reform -- and centerpiece of next year's political infighting -- asks the philosophical question: How fancy an education should the government subsidize? Under present rules, low- and middle-income students may attend expensive private colleges, because loans and grants help cover the difference between the student's slim purse and the cost of attendance. But the administration wants to lower the cap on the total amount of money the government pays per student. Lower- and middle-income students could still get a good education, but they'd be pretty much limited to middle-priced schools. The expensive private colleges would wind up catering more to the rich, while lower-income students stayed in their state-university systems.
So here's the social and political issue: Is it good policy to make private colleges available to students of all social classes? Or isn't it worth the price? This question poses the sharpest challenge to the ideal of equal access to education for all students, regardless of income, since federal student aid began.