By RUTH SIMON Reporter associate: Laura Begley

(MONEY Magazine) – It is no longer any secret that public universities can provide a solid education -- in some cases rivaling what students can get at elite private institutions -- at a bargain price. During the 1980s, when the cost of a diploma at some private colleges reached $80,000, demand for public schools soared. Undergraduate enrollment at the nation's 575 four-year public colleges jumped from 4,980,000 in 1979-80 to 5,737,000 a decade later. But cuts in state subsidies are starting to dim public education's luster. Government- supported universities in California, New York, Maine and Massachusetts are laying off faculty or prodding them into early retirement. And even where budget problems are less dire, students face curtailed course offerings, increasingly crowded classrooms, shorter library hours, less support for student activities, and dirtier campuses. In addition, while private schools are finally slowing the rate of their tuition increases, financially pinched public systems are forcing parents and students to dig deeper into their own pockets. Tuition will climb by an average of 12% this year at public universities, and further hikes are likely. ''Public sector tuition now covers one-third to one-half of instructional costs,'' says James Mingle, executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association in Denver. ''Some states are talking about having it cover 50% to 70% of the cost within the next five years.''

In effect, state lawmakers are pushing more of the burden onto students and their parents. Until recently, many states exempted higher education from budget cuts. But this year, only two of the 32 states that pared their budgets spared their university systems. And that pattern could continue if state finances don't improve. ''If the fiscal crisis continues next year, higher education will be right back on the chopping block,'' says Richard Novak, director of the Center for State Higher Education Policy and Finance, a policy and research group in Washington, D.C. Nevertheless, state schools remain your best choice for reasonably priced higher education, with an average yearly cost for tuition, room and board of $5,248 (weighted to reflect the mix of resident and the higher nonresident charges), far less than the $13,318 average of private schools. Here are profiles of the public university systems in the six states that have the largest undergraduate enrollments.

CALIFORNIA Number of campuses: 29

Undergraduate enrollment: The University of California: 124,271, 9% from out of state; California State University: 294,083, 9% from out of state

State spending per student: UC: $13,581; CSU: $6,521 (both figures include graduate students and undergrads)

Undergraduate tuition: UC: $2,274 for residents, $9,973 for nonresidents; CSU: $948 for residents, $7,200 for nonresidents

Increase over 1990-91: UC: 40%; CSU: 20%

California's three-tiered system, long the model for taxpayer-funded higher education, is struggling to maintain its quality -- and its policy of finding a place for all qualified applicants -- in the face of a severe budget crunch. California may offer the most diverse group of colleges and universities in the nation. The state finances the highly selective University of California system, with 20 Nobel prizewinners on its nine campuses; the less selective 20-campus California State University system; and 107 two-year community colleges. At California's most famous campuses, including UC Berkeley (21,662 undergrads) and UCLA (24,302), students may sacrifice some personal attention for prestige. For example, at Berkeley, where a high-powered student body creates a passionately political atmosphere, some introductory classes have as many as 800 students, and there's little interaction between students and big- name faculty. Even smaller schools like UC Riverside (7,388 undergrads) and UC Santa Cruz (9,265) are seeking to improve their reputations for research, pushing professors to produce more scholarly work at the expense of time spent in the classroom. ''I'm no longer very high on the University of California system as a place where one can get a truly high-quality undergraduate education,'' says Martin Nemko, author of How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University (Avon, $10.95). Nemko believes that students will get more individual attention at a Cal State school or one of the state's junior colleges. No matter where you go, however, you're likely to find financial trouble. A $402 million (6.9%) budget cut is forcing the Cal State system to eliminate 1,000 teaching positions, or 6% of its faculty. At San Francisco State that means 600 fewer class sections, down from 4,000 last year. Similarly, the University of California will not replace as many as 400 faculty members who are retiring early. And, of course, tuition is climbing. The University of California system's annual charges jumped 40% to $2,274 this year ($9,973 for nonresidents), while Cal State has upped its charges 20% to $948 ($7,200 for nonresidents). Despite such problems, gaining admission to a UC or Cal State school is getting more difficult. The UC system is gradually trimming enrollment by 5,500 students, or 3%, over the next three to four years. Last fall, Cal State opened its new San Marcos campus, which will ultimately have an enrollment of about 2,000. Because of concerns about future funding, however, Cal State has indefinitely postponed its plan to add five more campuses. ''The pool of potential students is increasing at the same time that our resources are shrinking,'' says Cal State's vice chancellor Jack Smart.

TEXAS Number of campuses: 37

Undergraduate enrollment: 332,019, 9.7% from out of state

State spending per student: $3,452 (graduate and undergrad)

Undergraduate tuition: $600 for residents, $3,840 for nonresidents

Increase over 1990-91: 11% for residents, 5% for nonresidents

The kingpins of the 37-school Texas system are two highly regarded research institutions: the University of Texas at Austin, which ranks tenth on MONEY's list of top college buys and has strength in everything from architecture to zoology; and Texas A&M, in College Station, 90 miles northwest of Houston, known for its engineering and agriculture programs. The University of Houston also gets high marks for its chemical engineering and business programs and for its hotel and restaurant management division, which has received $25 million in grants from the Hilton Foundation. But in Texas as elsewhere, the schools with the national reputations aren't necessarily the places to go for personalized instruction. At UT Austin, for example, faculty superstars aren't required to teach undergrads, and graduate students lead many of the discussion sections that accompany large lecture classes. ''There's been some controversy among students about whether they are getting a fair shake, especially at the research universities,'' admits Ray Grasshoff, an information specialist with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Both UT Austin and Texas A&M have honors programs where the high achievers get individual attention. But less stellar students looking for smaller classes and close relationships with instructors might consider a school that puts more emphasis on teaching, such as the University of Texas at El Paso, where tenured faculty members devote 95% of their working time to instruction. Penny-pinching is becoming the byword at Texas universities, whose wealth tends to rise and fall with the fortunes of the local oil industry. The best example may be UT Austin, which gets the largest share of the income from the system's $3.4 billion oil-based endowment. UT Austin lured faculty superstars to its campus in the early 1980s by offering endowed chairs and generous financial packages. Now administrators say a proposed $31 million, or 4.7%, budget cut could force them to chop 313 positions, or 15% of their full-time faculty, plus 300 librarians and other staffers. Annual tuition is up 11% this year to $600 and could climb further. Texas A&M has already imposed a partial hiring and salary freeze. As in California, admissions are getting tougher in Texas. UT Austin, for example, is gradually pruning total enrollment from a little more than 50,000 students in 1988 to 48,000 by the mid-1990s. And over the long term, Texas A&M hopes to stabilize its student body at 41,000 instead of the 43,000 administrators once expected. ''We want to keep classes to a reasonable size,'' says Lane Stephenson, the director of public information at Texas A&M. ''We've raised our admission standards slightly.''

NEW YORK Number of campuses: SUNY: 22; CUNY: 10

Undergraduate enrollment: SUNY: 136,308, 5% from out of state; CUNY: 109,955, 5% from out of state

State spending per undergraduate: SUNY: $5,100 (estimate); CUNY: $6,531

Undergraduate tuition: SUNY: $2,150 for residents, $5,750 for nonresidents; CUNY: $1,850 for residents, $4,450 for nonresidents

Increase over 1990-91: SUNY: 30% for residents, 15% for nonresidents; CUNY: 30% for residents, 10% for nonresidents (SUNY figures do not include five state-funded statutory colleges attached to private universities.)

Last year, MONEY's list of the 10 best college values featured three State University of New York schools: SUNY Geneseo, SUNY Binghamton and SUNY Albany. This year's surge in tuition knocked all except Binghamton from the top 10. But New York still offers some of the nation's best bargains in education at both SUNY, the single largest university system in the country, and the 10- college City University of New York, which has provided upward mobility for generations of immigrants and minorities. SUNY's standouts include smaller campuses like Geneseo (5,125 undergraduates), a highly selective college in a rural setting at which all * professors teach freshmen; Binghamton (9,150), where most classes have fewer than 30 students; and Purchase (4,587), known for its strong arts program. And even some of the larger campuses are starting to focus on undergrads. Last year, for instance, SUNY Buffalo instituted a new curriculum for arts and science majors built around 50 senior faculty members who will be teaching seminars. And SUNY Stony Brook (11,403) allows talented undergrads to do research projects in the sciences, humanities and social sciences with its faculty. Among CUNY's best units are Brooklyn College (12,000 undergraduates), known for its innovative core curriculum, and Queens College (14,510), where students have ready access to their teachers.

This year's sharp increases in tuition sparked student sit-ins and protests on several campuses of both systems. At SUNY, annual tuition will jump 30% to $2,150 for residents and 15% to $5,750 for nonresidents. CUNY will boost its charges by 30% to $1,850 for residents (10% to $4,450 for nonresidents) this fall. At the same time, New York State is trimming its Tuition Assistance Program, which provides grants of as much as $4,050 a year to low- and middle- income students. Some SUNY campuses have placed a cap on enrollments, which has the effect of making admissions tougher. Spending will be slashed too. CUNY plans to leave vacant up to 971 faculty and staff slots opened by early retirements -- a 7% reduction -- and further cuts are likely. But officials are relieved the damage wasn't worse. ''Compared to other state agencies, which had draconian cuts, we feel we're doing well,'' says Joseph Burke, provost of SUNY, which had $13.6 million of $74 million in proposed cuts restored to its budget. ''Maybe it's like when you think you're going to lose a leg and then you only lose a foot.''

OHIO Number of campuses: 13

Undergraduate enrollment: 221,486, 9% from out of state

State spending per student: $4,454 (graduate and undergrad)

Undergraduate tuition: $2,063 to $3,693 for residents, $2,940 to $7,567 for nonresidents (estimates)

Increase over 1990-91: 9% (estimate)

The 13 state-funded institutions that make up Ohio's public university system range from the mammoth to the small: Ohio State, the system's flagship in Columbus, has the largest number of students on one campus in the country (54,094; 41,161 undergrads), while five-year-old Shawnee State, the baby of the system, educates slightly more than 3,000 annually. Ohio's gem is Miami University (14,314 undergrads) in the rural town of Oxford. With an above-average tuition of $3,692 for Ohio residents ($7,982 for out-of-staters), it might not look like a bargain. But it gets A's for making teaching a top priority. Three-quarters of freshman classes have 30 or fewer students; two-thirds of freshman courses are taught by full-time faculty. A second star: Ohio University's Athens campus (14,711 undergrads), which boasts strong honors and journalism programs. Big changes are afoot at Ohio State, which is better known for its football team than for high-quality instruction. Last year OSU began phasing in a core curriculum that focuses on writing, interpretation of data, foreign languages and foreign cultures. And many departments are replacing some large lectures with 30- to 40-student seminars. ''The biggest complaint nationally is that graduates can't write effectively and have difficulty expressing themselves and analyzing information,'' says Howard Gauthier, associate provost for academic affairs. ''The new program is designed to address that.'' Still, because of the state budget squeeze, spending in the university system has already been sliced by 3%, and another 4% nick is likely. One result: a 6.9% tuition increase. Tighter budgets have also brought hiring freezes, fewer and more crowded classes, and cutbacks in purchases of books, periodicals and lab equipment at some schools. But Ohio educators are cautiously optimistic. At Miami, university officials are trying to place the brunt of cuts on nonacademic areas such as maintenance services and support staff. ''I don't think you'll see a big impact on the quality of education in one year,'' says Joseph Urell, Miami University's associate vice president for academic affairs. ''But you may find a cumulative effect.''

PENNSYLVANIA Number of campuses: 14

Undergraduate enrollment: 87,839, 14% from out of state

State spending per student: $4,147 (includes graduate, undergrad and junior college)

Undergraduate tuition: $2,278 for residents, $4,312 for nonresidents (1990-91)

Increase over 1990-91: Not available (Figures do not include four quasi-public universities that get 25% of their funding from the state.)

Along with its 14-university state system, Pennsylvania has four quasi-public schools: Lincoln, Penn State, Temple and Pittsburgh universities. All four started as private institutions but ran into financial trouble; now they get a quarter of their funding from the state but, unlike public universities, set their own budgets and tuitions. Penn State, with 38,779 students (32,263 undergrads), tends to have large classes (as many as 300 students). But the campus still manages to convey more of a sense of community than most big state flagships because it is tucked away in University Park, a small town in the foothills of the Alleghenies. As part of an effort to reform its curriculum, Penn State this fall begins phasing in a multicultural requirement. Students will be required to take at least one course devoted to non-European cultures or gender roles -- such as ''Women in the Criminal Justice System'' or ''Women Writers and Their Worlds'' -- or four courses that deal in part with these issues. Temple undergrads must now take basic courses in math, science, writing and international studies. And Temple's faculty is debating whether to add courses on race and racism to the requirements. Undergraduate enrollments at the 14 student-friendly schools that make up the State University of Pennsylvania system run from 1,600 to 14,300. All professors teach at least four classes of undergrads each semester. One of the best, Shippensburg University (5,528 undergrads), set in a small town about 40 miles from Harrisburg, has a strong business school and permits upperclassmen to participate in research projects with faculty. The system is faring better than many of those in neighboring states. A 5% cut in state appropriations is forcing the universities to institute hiring freezes and scale back their purchases of computers and lab equipment. At this point, however, layoffs seem unlikely.

MICHIGAN Number of campuses: 15

Undergraduate enrollment: 203,564, 12% from out of state

State spending per student: $4,086 (includes graduate, undergrad and junior college)

Undergraduate tuition: $2,040 to $4,044 for residents, $4,119 to $13,420 for nonresidents

Increase over 1990-91: 6.5% to 7.5%

Michigan's 15 state-funded universities include two behemoths: the 36,306- student (23,115 undergrads) University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, one of the nation's leading research universities; and Michigan State, where 42,785 (34,634 undergrads) young men and women attend classes on an ivy-covered campus that sprawls over 5,239 acres in suburban East Lansing. Three lesser- known institutions that cater to undergraduates are Western Michigan (19,732 undergrads), Eastern Michigan (19,406) and Oakland (10,089) universities. Both Michigan State and the University of Michigan are striving to improve undergraduate education. This year, Michigan State's provost urged all faculty members to teach and, to set an example, taught an undergraduate course in physics. In the fall of 1992 the school will change its academic calendar from quarters to semesters to help instructors cover material in more depth. And the administration is taking steps to beef up the basic curriculum, requiring students to take at least two semesters each of science, the arts and humanities, and social science, as well as two intensive writing courses. The University of Michigan runs a handful of small, innovative programs, such as its 964-student Residential College, all meant to help undergraduates find a niche in the vast campus. But the university still doesn't do enough, according to a report issued in June 1990 by a faculty-student committee. The report complained that freshmen and sophomores were taught mostly by graduate students and lecturers, and that students had little contact with full-time faculty. The university is considering dozens of recommendations, including creating an undergraduate division in which the faculty would be encouraged to put more emphasis on classroom teaching and less on research. While university budgets were trimmed by 1% this spring, Republican Governor John Engler has proposed a 4% increase for this year -- one of the few such hikes in the nation. ''It's a remarkable statement of commitment to quality education,'' says Glen Stephens, executive director of the President's Council, a Michigan group that represents the state's universities. But even with the increase, some teaching slots will go unfilled, and tuition is climbing by 6.5% to 7.5% this year, which will put the University of Michigan out of many students' reach. With a tuition of $13,420 for nonresidents ($4,044 for residents), it already costs as much as many private colleges.