COLUMBIA - The chairman of the House budget-writing committee wants to hire a national consultant to evaluate spending by South Carolina's public colleges and find savings that could reduce tuition.

Ways and Means Chairman Brian White, R-Anderson, says tuition costs are climbing too high. He's made reining them in a priority.

A subcommittee that handles state spending on colleges heard Tuesday from financial consulting firm Deloitte. It expects to hear from at least two other national firms in the coming weeks.

Deloitte director Rick Ferraro said a review could cost the state several million dollars, depending on the contract's specifications, but the expected savings could be many times that.

Ferraro said a statewide assessment could take six months. He added that savings can be achieved without laying people off through bulk purchasing, centralizing of technology infrastructure, class scheduling and other efficiencies. The savings occur faster, he said, as opposed to paying someone a severance package that could mean no savings for more than a year. "Procurement is immediate and doesn't touch people," he said.

State Rep. Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, said, "It's a reverse way of looking at funding. It's creating funding rather than allocating it.

"It's easier to save a dollar than make it," the subcommittee chairman added.

Tuition at South Carolina's public colleges, on average, ranks the highest in the Southeast. College officials blame less revenue from the state budget, and point to lottery-backed scholarships that reduce out-of-pocket expenses for in-state students.

On average, tuition at the state's 13 public four-year colleges has increased by 17 percent over the past five years, and the state ranks 19th nationwide in college debt, with 55 percent of the Class of 2012 graduating with debt, according to the budget committee.

Rep. Garry Smith, R-Simpsonville, said he doesn't believe the colleges' complaint about revenue: "I think it's an expenses issue," he said, adding he's especially concerned that tuition continued to climb amid the Great Recession, putting costs above students' reach.

Col. Joseph Garcia, The Citadel's vice president of finance, said the school is "committed to good stewardship practices and supports any state-sponsored measure that identifies additional cost savings and efficiencies." For example, he said, the school's improved procurement practices, which generated a 102 percent cost savings over the last fiscal year.

"We are focused on initiatives that cut costs while simultaneously retaining the quality of education," Garcia said.

Mike Robertson, spokesman for College of Charleston, said the school is dedicated to achieving cost savings and efficiencies in its operations, and is open to additional opportunities to review potential areas of efficiency.

In the past few years, the school has launched a campuswide efficiency review that has saved more than $900,000, and a review of the Division of Business Affairs, which yielded an annual cost savings of more than $250,000.

And in 2012, Robertson said, the college completed an efficiency study of its Information Technology operations. As a result of the study, it consolidated server hardware, revised its hardware acquisition processes and reduced software expenses by purchasing campus-wide licenses for software.

University of South Carolina spokesman Wes Hickman noted the state's flagship university is ahead of the House's effort. Its board commissioned a cost-savings study of its eight-campus system several years ago from Huron, a Deloitte competitor that is likely to also make a presentation to the subcommittee. The university is still implementing some recommendations, Hickman said, pointing to its efficiency ranking last month by the U.S. News & World Report.

Clemson University ranked within the top 10 of most efficient national universities, based on spending per student, while the University of South Carolina ranked in the top 15.

"As a testament to our efficiency, we currently spend $1,000 less per student than we did in 2008 - all while boosting our enrollment, achieving record SAT scores and bolstering USC's status as a destination of choice," Hickman said.

The Post and Courier's Diane Knich contributed to this report.