IN THIS FIRST WEEK of the 1981-82 academic year, the figures on current college tuition and living costs bring bleak news to students and to those who help pay for their education. In the year ahead, university and college expenses nationwide will rise by a record 13 percent to 16 percent, depending upon the type of school, according to the College Board's annual survey. Again, Vermont's Bennington College posted the highest total cost figure--$12,030--and a number of other highly respected universities and colleges broke the $11,000 mark. Close to home, four universities--American, Catholic, George Washington and Georgetown--as well as Mt. Vernon College all project costs exceeding $8,000.

Virtually every institution of higher learning in the country blames this dramatic rise in expenses mainly on two factors: escalating energy costs and the deepening inroads of inflation upon annual operating budgets.

How will Americans pay for this year's dramatic increase in college costs? During the past decade, the federal government assumed an ever-increasing amount of the financial burden--in grants and loans--for college students. Easily the largest percentage (over one-fourth) of the almost $17 billion in monetary help for college students from all sources in 1980-81 came from guaranteed loans. But the Reagan budget bill significantly altered the terms of that program. In the future, students from families with $30,000 in annual income will be eligible for guaranteed loans only after proving their financial need by new rigorous tests (those families who earn less than $30,000 annually, as in the past, can still borrow up to $2,500 a year for each undergraduate).

However, possibly 90 percent of the 1981-82 loans, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, which surveyed the scene recently, "may escape the new restrictions," which do not take effect until Oct. 1. Whether the more stringent eligibility requirements thereafter will keep many hard-pressed students of middle-income background from attending their chosen colleges may not be apparent for another academic year.

During the next 30 days, however, the message to collegians from middle-income families seems obvious. Christmas comes in September this year. Run, don't walk, for your nearest application blank before the Oct. 1 deadline ends prematurely the fall harvest of old-style guaranteed loans.