Giving Students a Voice in the College Budget

April 01, 2013

In January, Moody's Investors Service released its annual review of the financial health of American colleges. Although more pessimistic than some people had expected, the report in many ways confirmed what analysts have been preaching for years: College officials need to confront fundamental questions about the future of higher education. Rising tuition costs, mounting student debt, new academic technologies, and an increasingly global economic environment all represent challenges to the traditional college model. In the coming years, as administrators chart the long-term course of their institutions, it is crucial that they take student voices into consideration.

Yet as college leaders well know, it's not easy to get meaningful strategic input from students. Unlike presidents and provosts, students graduate every four years or so. Their perspective can be shortsighted, and they tend to voice the same complaints every few years. College planning, on the other hand, is slow-moving, complex, and often controversial. The process is ill suited to a demographic preoccupied with term papers and tests.

These roadblocks make student participation in college planning difficult. But not impossible. When we were students at Northwestern University, we led the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee, a nine-member team that represents students in the annual budgeting process. Through this committee, students have helped shape the strategic goals of our university. We believe similar efforts can be successful at other institutions.

The committee was founded a decade ago, when Northwestern administrators invited student representatives to begin presenting an annual report to the university working group on budget allocation. The idea was simple: If students want a stake in the future of their institution, they should work within the existing planning process rather than attempt to influence it from the outside.

Each year the committee proposes a list of specific budget requests on behalf of students. The budget working group then weighs these proposals against those of the deans and vice presidents as it shapes capital expenditures. By all accounts, from both students and administrators, this approach has been a success.

The committee's work begins in the fall, when we collect ideas for budget proposals. We ask students to dream big: If you had unlimited funds, how would you change Northwestern? We hold open forums in dorms and dining halls, and we sit down with student leaders and administrators. Students can also submit ideas anonymously, through an online poll called the Campus Brainstorm. Responses range from the insightful (more support for undergraduate research, expanded course offerings) to the unrealistic (free printing! campuswide air-conditioning!).

Late in the fall, we gather the best ideas and study their feasibility. Could Northwestern really make every lecture accessible online? How many students would ride a new shuttle bus to Chicago? As we work, we write and administer a campuswide survey that allows students to choose their top priorities. Because the response rate is consistently high, administrators can trust that our results accurately reflect student opinion.

In the winter, the committee morphs into a consulting firm. We conduct financial research into students' most-pressing needs and study how our peer institutions handle similar problems. Each February we assemble a ranked list of priorities—based on the student demand for each item, its estimated cost, and the university's strategic priorities—and present a formal report to the president, provost, and vice president for finance. When proposals receive funds, we work with the relevant departments to ensure that the money is spent efficiently and in a timely manner.

Our recommendations have varied widely over the last decade. Some ideas—such as the expansion of Wi-Fi on campus, or technological improvements in classrooms—have brought Northwestern's infrastructure into the 21st century. Other proposals—capital investments in the student center, additional upperclassman housing, a new campus lecture series—have helped build a more robust sense of student community. Still others—the expansion of financial aid, for instance, or the improvement of campus mental-health services—lack clear solutions but require thoughtful, continuing student input.

Because most of our ideas cannot be dealt with in one budget cycle, our committee has sought to cultivate a robust institutional memory. Underclassmen are selected to serve for the duration of their time at Northwestern. This allows them to learn from veterans—helping to mitigate the effects of student turnover—and encourages an ethic of stewardship among our members. It has also allowed us to develop long-term relationships with administrators—relationships that have contributed immensely to the personal growth of the committee's members.

Students aren't the only ones who benefit from our process. Before our committee began its annual presentations, Northwestern administrators received a number of unrelated—and, frankly, half-baked—petitions from students each year. The committee has streamlined this process. What's more, our close working relationships with college leaders has provided them with a sounding board for their own ideas, and enabled us to collaborate with them on complex issues.

By joining with the Undergraduate Budget Priorities Committee, Northwestern administrators have empowered students to take an active role in shaping our institution. The committee isn't a focus group, and it doesn't merely rubber-stamp the decisions of higher-ups. Rather, it allows Northwestern students to suggest concrete solutions to real problems with the undergraduate experience. Every college is different, and we're not naïve enough to think that our model will work at every one. We do believe, however, that it's possible for undergraduates to offer meaningful contributions to debates over their institutions' budgets. In the coming years, as administrators plan for an uncertain future, students deserve a seat at the table.

Anil Wadhwani is a doctoral student in the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University. Jonathan Green is a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge.