More than 100 students came to the Statehouse from a half-dozen public colleges to rally for higher education.
"It's time for students to stand up for what we think is right," said 23-year-old Clemson senior Jeremy Tolbert, of Greenville.
Students said they realize the recession has required lawmakers to make tough budget decisions.
Of the $1 billion cut from the state budget since July, $170 million came from public colleges and technical schools, while K-12 education took a $334 million hit.
The college students contend legislators must consider the long-term consequences.
South Carolina's economic prosperity depends on an educated work force that can move the state from its long reliance on textile mills and other manufacturing jobs, said Clemson University student body president Callie Boyd, a 21-year-old senior from Simpsonville.
"We demand higher education be at the top of the priority list and not at the bottom," Ms. Boyd said. "Higher education is the answer to the state's problems. And we need help."
The president of USC Aiken's student body said the reduced number of classes available makes it difficult for students to make their schedules and graduate on time, particularly if they need to work.
"I personally don't get fed by a silver spoon," said Adam Shults, a 20-year-old junior.
The finance major, who plans to enter the seminary when he graduates, said he's often forced to take a 6:30 p.m. class. "It's a terrible crisis trying to produce a schedule."