As a fifth-year senior at California Polytechnic University, Steve McShane knows the consequences of dwindling state support for higher education.
Time and again he's been squeezed out of overcrowded - but required - courses. It means he's headed back for another fall of coursework rather than moving into the work force.
"Increased access to classes is the No. 1 priority with students," says Mr. McShane, who served as Cal Poly's student-body president last year.
As enrollments bulge and public funds decline, colleges are being forced to get creative about bridging funding gaps. Some schools are restructuring and eliminating programs. Others are setting up cooperative agreements with nearby universities to reduce overhead and duplication.
In a few cases, university administrators are turning to students for help - with varying degrees of success. At Princeton University, students sit on a tuition-setting committee. At Cal Poly, which is part of the California State University system, they've attempted an innovative version of "Let's Make a Deal."
In April, the 16,000 students in San Luis Obispo were asked to vote on raising their fees in exchange for more professors, updated technology, and other improvements designed to help them learn more while graduating sooner.
"Because we're a technical school, we have much higher costs," says Harvey Greenwald, a math professor and former chairman of the Academic Senate. "It's just impossible to have labs with 50 or 60 students."
The 'Cal Poly Plan'
"The idea was to go to the students and say, 'If you're willing to pay extra fees we're willing to address these problems," Professor Greenwald says.
Dubbed the "Cal Poly Plan," the deal got moving last fall when fees were raised $135 a year based on surveys showing student support for the idea. The $2.1 million in resulting revenue paid for new computer labs, extended library hours, and 16 new faculty positions for this fall.
With four more professors in his own department this year, McShane expects to have an easier time getting the courses he needs. "We now have the most library hours of the entire CSU system," McShane adds. "Our library is open quite a bit, and I've used it at those odd hours."
For him, the increased fees are worth it. "When you graduate, a degree from Cal Poly will mean more because you're paying for these special programs."
Kevin Rice, a part-time engineering student at Cal Poly, doesn't buy that argument. "It's been a trend to nickel-and-dime students to death," he says. "And now it's not nickel and dimes. We pay $200 to $300 a quarter for these extra things."
Mr. Rice distributed 2,000 fliers against the plan last school year, just before the student referendum on an additional $144 annual fee increase.
Despite earlier surveys showing student support for increases, 70 percent of students voting in April opposed the fee hike. Most students agreed with the goals of the plan, "but they rejected the idea that they should pay for it out of their fees rather than having it come from other sources," says Linda Dalton, vice provost for institutional planning.
Many students were simply not convinced that they would get a direct return on their investment. "If I'm going to pay that kind of money out of my pocket, I want to see something for it," Rice says. Sure, longer library hours are nice, he says. But he didn't see enough improvement from the original $2 million raised to warrant another increase.
The trouble with this approach is that it's asking short-term students to take a long-term view, says Morton Schapiro, an economist at the University of Southern California. "You're asking people to vote basically for the education of their brothers and sisters," he says.
"If they were guaranteed that they could graduate sooner and have smaller classes, they would probably do it," Mr. Schapiro says. "But it's hard to make that kind of explicit bargain."
"A lot of the new programs [from the Cal Poly Plan] weren't university-wide," acknowledges McShane. "They were benefiting a biology student by purchasing microscopes that a liberal-arts student would never use."
Specific fees, please
In the past, student fees were more specific and easier to sell to students, Ms. Dalton says. " 'Do you want to have a new recreation center that's got racquetball courts and swimming pools?' That's very concrete and students can say yes or no to it," she says.
Nonetheless, the cost pressures mean that creative financing is a must, Dalton says. Taking the lessons from this last round of student debate and voting, the Cal Poly Plan will be reassessed this fall.
One idea is to go back to more narrowly focused fees for specific projects. Another is to ask students to pay fees into their own college and give those schools more autonomy to use it on projects directly benefiting their students.
"Students in the College of Engineering could see that they were getting a new computer lab because of increasing their fees," says incoming student-body president Cindy Entzi. "This might show students that their money is really working for them."
Rice thinks the idea has promise. "I'm tired of paying for services and programs that I don't get any benefit from," he says. "This way, I'd know that new fees wouldn't go toward things I won't be using."