COLUMBIA -- About 100 college students from across the state rallied at the Statehouse on Tuesday, urging lawmakers to spare higher education from more budget cuts that they say are damaging schools and the state's economic future.
"We can't be expected to achieve greatness if we're given the bare minimum," said Rachel Sopp, a 19-year-old sophomore at USC-Beaufort. "We are making huge strides. But, if you cut us now, we'll never know our potential."
Sopp and other students met with some legislators and with Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
However, their most pointed message was for Gov. Mark Sanford.
Sanford has proposed capping tuition to force colleges to be more efficient and keep their costs affordable.
Tuition caps have been in each of the governor's last three budget proposals, but the idea has not gained traction in the General Assembly.
The students said tuition caps are short-sighted and a bad idea.
"What the governor is proposing would cripple any university," said Callie Boyd, the 21-year- old student body president at Clemson University.
Boyd said a tuition cap would limit a school's ability to bring in more revenue when the state cuts its funding. Schools then would have no choice but to limit programs or shed professors and staff.
"I think that's capping quality," Boyd said. "We are not saying, 'We want tuition to go up.' We trust that our board of trustees will set tuition at an appropriate level."
Sanford's spokesman, Joel Sawyer, said Boyd's argument about limiting quality misses a broader, more important point. "If you can't afford to go to school, all the quality in the world won't matter a hill of beans."
Tuition at four-year S.C. colleges and universities has risen by an average of 35 percent in the past four years, according to the S.C. Commission on Higher Education.
In 2005-2006, the median annual tuition and required fees for full-time, in-state S.C. students was $8,065, according to the Southern Regional Education Board.
That cost was 52 percent higher than the average in 15 other states the board tracks and 37 percent higher than the average nationwide.
A former adviser to Clemson's trustees has sued the school, claiming it raised its tuition while it secretly was amassing a $79 million rainy-day fund.
Clemson president James Barker has defended his school's tuition increases as "very reasonable ... especially compared to the much greater improvement in quality."
Despite the already high cost of college in South Carolina, school officials are contemplating more tuition hikes as legislators prepare to cut their state funding again.
The state ranked 36th in the nation in per-capita state spending on higher education in 2008, according the Center for Education Policy at Illinois State University. Only Florida, at No. 39, ranked lower among Southern states, the center found.
After their Statehouse rally, the students told anyone who would listen that cutting education is not the way to improve things in South Carolina.
"We know that if we spend money on education today, it won't help our state tomorrow," said Andrew Gaeckle, 21, the student body president at USC. "But, in the long run, it's what our state needs."