COLUMBIA, S.C. — Students from three South Carolina universities urged lawmakers Tuesday to be careful when they trim the budget, saying deep cuts to higher education will hurt the state's economic future.

The nearly 30 student leaders from the College of Charleston, Clemson University and the University of South Carolina who rallied outside the Statehouse said they realize cuts are necessary as the state faces a $700 million shortfall.

'We won't be immune, but we ask the cuts to be fair, equal and in accordance with other agencies,' said College of Charleston student president Isaiah Nelson, a 20-year-old junior from Herndon, Va.

Over the past two years, federal stimulus money has helped offset state cuts to higher education. But legislative leaders say most of the cuts in the 2011-12 budget will likely come from education and Medicaid, because that's where the bulk of state money goes.

Colleges also have raised tuition and fees to cover shrinking state funding.

Legislators are considering capping tuition increases, saying colleges are pricing a degree beyond the reach of students and parents. Tuition rates at South Carolina universities are the highest in the Southeast, though college officials contend that lottery-funded scholarships keep out-of-pocket expenses for in-state students affordable.

Lawmakers also may limit how many out-of-state students a college can accept.

USC junior Victoria Black, 20, of Winston-Salem, N.C., said she'd rather pay higher tuition than see programs cut or professors fired. She said she's considering continuing at the USC law school but worries budget cuts will diminish the value of the degree.

'At the end of the day, I believe Clemson knows what's best for Clemson,' said Clemson student president Ryan Duane, a 22-year-old finance major from Irmo.

Nelson, the Virginia student, said those who pay the full price of higher out-of-state tuition help keep costs for in-state students down. They also will add to the work force and tax base, he said, if they stay in South Carolina after graduating, as he intends to do.

'If we limit out-of-state students, in-state tuition will skyrocket,' said Nelson, a political science major.

Organizers included 18-year-old sophomore Charlotte Harrell, daughter of House Speaker Bobby Harrell and USC's student lobbying director. The accounting major said conversations with her father give her a wider perspective on the issues and budget crisis.

She said she understands legislators' call for a cap on out-of-state students, but said those students are important to a school's diversity and to the state's future.

South Carolina's public colleges receive an average of just 8 percent of their funding from the state. That compares to 17 percent a decade ago. State funding is well below the regional average, even after factoring in state-funded scholarships, according to the Commission on Higher Education.