The decision won't be easy.

But leaders at most Lowcountry public colleges and universities must decide if they will reduce tuition or drop plans for new campus buildings.

School officials seemed stunned Thursday, the day after the state's Budget and Control Board approved a moratorium on new building projects for four-year schools that raised tuition more than 7 percent, and two-year institutions that raised it more than 6.3 percent for the 2010-2011 school year. The ban does not apply to maintenance, projects necessary for the health and safety of students, buildings already under way or construction funded by private dollars.

The College of Charleston, The Citadel and the Medical University of South Carolina all are affected by the moratorium, which will be lifted if the colleges send a letter to the Budget and Control Board certifying that tuition will be lowered to the acceptable level -- a rate based on the national norm.

College and university officials say round after round of budget cuts have forced them to raise tuition to keep the institutions open and competitive in the worst economic climate since the Great Depression.

But an analysis by The Post and Courier this past summer revealed that many of the tuition increases at the state's schools are much greater than cuts to the institutions' budgets.

George Benson, president of the College of Charleston did not respond to calls for comment Thursday. The college raised tuition 14.8 percent this year, the highest percentage increase in the state.

Mike Robertson, senior media relations director for the college, said Benson has nothing new to say about the issue until he consults with the college's Board of Trustees.

Board Chairwoman Marie Land could not be reached for comment.

Robertson said Wednesday that despite a warning letter Senate Finance Committee Chairman Hugh Leatherman sent to the college this past summer, college officials were surprised by the board's actions Wednesday. They will have to re-evaluate tuition, capital projects and the recently approved strategic plan, he said.

A $1.9 million cafeteria expansion project at the college is subject to the moratorium.

Citadel President Lt. Gen. John Rosa also didn't respond to calls for comment.

Jeff Perez, the military college's vice president for external affairs, said college officials are concerned about the quality and affordability of a public education. But, he said, "we have not yet received the specific language of the building moratorium approved by the BCB, and until we do, it won't be possible for the college to determine its impact or our response."

The school has no new construction scheduled, he said.

MUSC President Ray Greenberg said Wednesday that he will propose lowering tuition for the spring semester, noting that the institution's overall tuition increase of 7.1 percent was only slightly above the 7 percent limit.

The university has some renovation projects under development, Greenberg has said. A project to renovate research space for microbiology and immunology has a major federal stimulus grant, which could be lost if a building moratorium is put in place, he said.

Clemson University's Board of Trustees held a conference call meeting to discuss the moratorium. President James Barker released the following statement after the meeting: "In executive session we discussed the legal and contractual ramifications of the decision by the Budget and Control Board yesterday regarding the building moratorium. No action was taken."

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491.