The moment registration opens, Michele D. Hannah dives for courses with the fury of a fifth-year college student vexed by a constant riddle.
"When will I get the classes I need to graduate?" said Hannah, Class of "I have no idea" at the University of Iowa.
Classes have gotten so tight, or so scarce, that Hannah says she trolls the university's Web site like a day-trader, checking every few hours for the stray course opening that might suddenly appear.
But it probably will not. Many public universities - after whittling away at staff, coaxing faculty members to juggle more classes, stripping sports teams and trusting aging roofs to hold out a few years longer - have reluctantly begun chopping away at academics, making it harder for students to graduate on schedule.
The University of Illinois has canceled 1,000 classes on hundreds of subjects this year. The University of Colorado has eliminated academic programs in journalism, business and engineering. The University of California has delayed opening an entire campus.
Virginia Tech is scrapping an education major and suspending mandatory history classes because it does not have enough professors. Rutgers is pruning the arts and sciences.
The University of Missouri has reduced the number of class-time slots across the board.
The University of Michigan will nearly double the size of some classes, shorten library hours and offer fewer freshman seminars. At California State University, as many as 30,000 students will be turned away come spring.
"The academic cuts are probably the most severe I've seen," said Edward M. Elmendorf, who was an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and is now a senior vice president at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. "And I don't see any mitigation in them in the coming year."
The budget cuts, more than 10 percent of state appropriations in some cases, have been too great not to take their toll.
"There is no doubt that we're at a stage where the quality of the educational experience is less than it was two years ago, five years ago, and certainly less than what we set for our standards," said Robert N. Shelton, provost of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
What this means for students will vary from campus to campus, even from major to major. Yet one of the most common academic cuts has been a reduction in the number of course sections offered - that is, how many times a class is taught in a given semester or year.
"It will influence students' ability to graduate on time," said Larry D. Roper, vice provost for student affairs at Oregon State University.
Making matters worse, college officials say, the more tuition rises to keep public campuses afloat during troubled economic times, the more students will end up taking jobs to earn money to pay it, only heightening the obstacles to a degree.
It is hard to overstate the passion created on campuses by tuition increases and academic pruning. More than 1,000 members of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars, an organization of college honor students, responded by e-mail or telephone to a reporter's query seeking comment on the situation, and most expressed irritation and anxiety.
"It frustrates me, even makes me angry, to know that my parents are paying more and more for an education which is giving me less and less," said Valerie Szybala, a third-year student at Virginia Tech, encapsulating many students' sentiments.
For their part, universities are scrambling to keep valued faculty members. Confronted with bigger class loads, less time for research, fewer administrative aides, less money for graduate assistants and salary freezes, tenured professors are vowing to leave - and are occasionally making good on their threats.
"It still looks good from the road but, oh Lord, there's a lot of suffering inside," said Chris Hart, a spokesman for the University System of Maryland, which has been struggling to retain faculty. "Professors are saying, 'You can't support my research, so I'm taking it elsewhere.'"