John A. Carlos II (copy)

Students at the University of South Carolina. John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — A new tool from the state’s higher education oversight agency aims to give students a glimpse of just how much it actually costs to attend classes, buy books and live on campus at any of South Carolina’s four-year public universities.

The online Palmetto Calculator from the S.C. Commission on Higher Education estimates the total costs of virtually every aspect of the four-year college experience, from tuition to housing to meals and the price of books.

Much of the information is already publicly available on university websites. But the tool offers a new level of convenience.

Prospective students using the calculator (getsmartsc.com/palmetto calculator) can select their university and degree of choice. They can also select the on-campus dormitory and meal plan. It estimates the costs of books using figures that sometimes are a university average but occasionally include program-based estimates.

Then the calculator will spit out a bill for the total estimated cost projected over four years.

An in-state business management student at Clemson University, for instance, could pay as much as $74,000 for a bachelor’s degree over four years in $18,536 worth of annual tuition, books and university fees, according to the calculator.

By comparison, the calculator projects a business administration student would pay roughly $58,200 over four years at the College of Charleston, including a $14,571 annual tuition, books and fees.

The tool is part of a website, GetSmartSC.com, launched Monday by CHE. The site aims to streamline South Carolina’s college application and financial aid processes.

“We think this is probably more comprehensive than any we’ve seen,” said Jeff Schilz, the agency’s interim executive director.

The website comes amid the agency’s push for more financial transparency from universities, part of an overall goal of making college affordable for South Carolinians. The projections use current data from the school and do not account for any potential future changes in tuition and other costs.

Commission on Higher Education leaders have expressed concern about the rising cost of going to college at state schools and the burden that places on students and their families.

South Carolina public colleges have the Southeast's highest average tuition — in part because the state legislators provide among the nation's smallest amounts of government funding.

The commission also has been sending warnings about excessive spending at state colleges, saying a building boom will saddle schools with debt just as the number of high school graduates is expected to drop. The colleges say they can manage the debt and that new construction is needed to attract the best students.

The commission approved a “Student Bill of Rights” in May, which, among other provisions, calls on universities to cap expenses and report occasionally vague university fees in a way that allows for cost comparisons.

The average debt owed by S.C. students graduating from a public, four-year college is roughly $30,500, which ranks as the worst in the Southeast and eighth-worst nationwide. When taking tuition costs and measuring them against South Carolina’s average household income, the state is the worst in the country.

With the Palmetto Calculator, students may also input dollar estimates for annual scholarships and other financial aid.

The calculator then projects the amount that may be needed to borrow in student loans, estimating the debt owed in future yearly or monthly payments.

Follow Joseph Cranney on Twitter @joey_cranney.

Joseph Cranney is a reporter based in Columbia, covering state and local government. He previously covered government and sports for newspapers in Florida and Pennsylvania.