Tuition at public colleges is much lower in South Carolina's neighboring states, where there is also more support for higher education.

Tuition at South Carolina's public four-year schools is the highest in the South, and the level at which it funds its universities falls second from the bottom among the 16 Southern states. Only West Virginia contributes less to its colleges, according the Southern Regional Education Board, a group that represents those states.

The median cost of tuition at South Carolina's four-year schools in the 2008-09 school year, the last for which data is available, was $8,400.

That was more than double the cost of tuition in North Carolina, which was $4,174, and Georgia, which was $4,032.

During that same period, South Carolina contributed, on average, $4,820 per student to its colleges and universities. That falls far behind North Carolina at $11,552, and Georgia at $7,788.

But a comparatively low level of state funding is not an excuse for schools to continue a skyrocketing rate of increase in the cost of higher education, said Alan Richard, communication director for the Southern Regional Education Board. Richard said his group is taking a stand on higher education costs, which include tuition, room and board, and other college expenses.

"State appropriations will not increase dramatically in the next few years," he said, "so we have to begin to produce more college degrees for less money." That's not ideal, Richard said, "but it's reality."

College and state leaders need to work together to find ways to make higher education more affordable, he said.

Colleges probably have good reasons to raise tuition, Richard said. "But that doesn't make it any easier for students to pay. Affordability is a major factor in students not finishing degrees."

But George Hynd, provost at the College of Charleston, said he's heard no public outcry about the college raising tuition 14.8 percent for the 2010-11 school year. College leaders are sensitive to the impact of tuition increases on families, he said, "but we need to be competitive, and offer the best academic programs possible, and that costs money."

Hynd also said that he talked to students and parents who recently were on campus for orientation, "and to be frank, I did not receive one inquiry about tuition increases."

But according to data from the Southern Regional Education Board, South Carolinians are ill-prepared to absorb the growing cost of higher education.

In the 2008-09 school year, undergraduate tuition in South Carolina consumed about one out of every five dollars of the median family income. In North Carolina, the amount was about one out of every 10 dollars, and in Georgia it was slightly less than that.

Jeff Perez, vice president for external affairs at The Citadel, said the military college does all it can to keep costs as low as possible. While the college raised tuition 13 percent for the upcoming school year, the total cost to attend the school will rise 6.3 percent, he said. The "all-in" cost, which includes tuition, room and board, clothing, haircuts and even laundry, is important at the school where all students are required to live on campus, he said.

School leaders are aware of the impact of tuition increases on students and parents, Perez said. One of the ways they try to address the cost of higher education is by pushing students to graduate in four years. The Citadel's four-year graduation rate is 67 percent, which is the highest in the state, he said.