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Is student aid a right?

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Today's student has to study more than reading, writing, and arithmetic.

He has to study student aid.

And in today's political arena, that's a real challenge. One week, students march on Washington protesting the federal financial aid cuts they claim will undermine higher education in America. The next week President Reagan interrupts his vacation to say these same college students have been ''simply misled.''

Why does such confusion exist over the effects of these cuts? And what will be their real impact? Perhaps a total rethinking is in order.

We American college students are confused because we have failed to educate ourselves. Many of us have forsaken objectivity and let our emotions and misperceptions be our guide. We have ignored the final examination question: is financial aid a privilege or a right?

From the cuts already enacted and those on the drawing board, it is clear that the student aid ''gold rush'' is over. Quite simply, the program had become , in the words of Education Secretary Terrel Bell, ''too generous.'' The question now becomes whether these cuts correct abuses, provide assistance to the truly needy, and still keep America's college system intact.

The Guaranteed Student Loan Program allowed some families to turn a tidy profit by investing their son's or daughter's subsidized loan in the money market. This blatant abuse of the program's intentions ''was indefensible, even in affluent times,'' Harvard president Derek C. Bok admits. Last summer Congress established an income ceiling and a ''needs test'' limiting subsidized loans to those families who genuinely need to borrow to see their children through college.

It seems the federal programs for the impoverished student will be left largely unscathed. The Basic Educational Opportunity Grant is not in danger and, according to Mr. Reagan, there is a ''veritable laundry list'' of help available to those who demonstrate need.

Clearly the brunt of the cuts will hit a tired target: the middle-income majority. Their fate and that of the entire American college system are linked inextricably. Do Mr. Reagan's proposals spell doom for the average college student and therefore the college he attends?

Evidently not. But hard choices will have to be made. As grants dry up, students will have to rely more upon loans; as costs of borrowing rise, it will become more expensive--though by no means impossible--for our younger brothers and sisters to earn their college degrees.

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