The presidents of Virginia's three most prestigious public colleges formally launched a bid Tuesday to convince state lawmakers that their institutions should have wide-ranging freedom from state control in exchange for a willingness to accept less public money.

The chief executives at the University of Virginia, the College of William and Mary and Virginia Tech told a legislative panel that they must be freed from time-consuming red tape and political uncertainty if they want to compete for faculty, research dollars and top students against the world's best public and private universities.

And they said they plan to propose legislation in January that would transform the three colleges from state agencies into independent public entities, with control of their budgets, tuition rates, procurement, capital construction and salaries.

"You have three institutions at the top of your system that are in jeopardy," warned University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III. "What's at stake here is one of our republic's great legacies, the one Mr. Jefferson imagined and struggled to create."

The college presidents said their desire to become "charter universities" is the result of 15 years of erratic state funding for undergraduate education and research. The colleges have developed slick Web sites, published elaborate brochures and hired the city's top lobbyists to press their case with lawmakers during the 2005 session.

"We have to have a greater degree of agility in responding," Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger told the lawmakers. "We compete against the best institutions in the nation and the world. Excellence costs money. There is no free ride."

But the proposal is controversial. Some question whether college employees will suffer from the change. Others say they worry that tuition for Virginia students will rise more sharply if such a plan is implemented.

"There's a general feeling that some degree of deregulation would clearly be very helpful to all of these universities," said Robert Holsworth, a professor of politics at Virginia Commonwealth University. "But lawmakers will want to ensure before they sign on the dotted line that these changes are ultimately good for Virginia."

One education expert warned on Tuesday that rushing to deregulate the three premier colleges could have unintended consequences for the rest of the state's system of higher education, which includes 12 other four-year colleges and 23 community colleges.

Aims McGuinness, a researcher at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems, said similar efforts in other states have largely failed. And he compared the complicated proposal offered by the colleges to a candy-covered wasp.

"It tastes good going down," he said. "But then the . . . darn thing bites you."

The charter plan has also generated concerns among advocates for the state's other colleges. Several said they believe that granting more autonomy to the state's strongest and most wealthy colleges could weaken the higher education system and create university haves and have-nots.

"All of us are saying it's moving faster than we're comfortable with," said Longwood University President Patricia Cormier.

Cormier said that giving the three elite schools the ability to go it alone would leave the rest of the colleges to lobby for higher education funds from the legislature each year without the political muscle that the others bring.

"When you look at those institutions, they do have a power base in the General Assembly," she said. "Not having them at the table causes us concern. We don't want to lose their voice."

Details of the charter proposal, which has been under development for several years, are still being worked out. But several lawmakers said they are eager to do something to help the colleges compete.

House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford), vice chairman of the subcommittee set up to study the issue, said he believes something must be done.

"We can't continue to administer our colleges the way we did in the 19th century," Howell said. "This is a new way of approaching things."

Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, said Virginia's top colleges are not meeting the challenge of competing on a "global scale."

"Where we stand vis-a-vis that scale is not pleasant to hear," said Chichester, who is also chairman of the study committee.

But Chichester, like Howell, said lawmakers are not entirely comfortable with all of the details of the proposal by the three colleges. He said his colleagues will need more information about the state's role in funding higher education and about the business plans of the three institutions.

"I don't think everyone is in full understanding of the solution and the full ramifications thereof," Chichester said.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) said the governor is "raising tough questions" about the proposal and will help lead a series of meetings across the state in the next several weeks to seek answers.

"It must be part of a broader policy debate about the role and responsibilities of higher education in the commonwealth," said spokeswoman Ellen Qualls. "The governor, working with the legislature, expects to help coordinate that debate."

College Presidents Charles W. Steger, left, of Virginia Tech, Timothy J. Sullivan of William and Mary, Eugene P. Trani of VCU and John T. Casteen III of U-Va. confer at the hearing.Sen. John H. Chichester (R-Stafford), left, has a word with House Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) during testimony before their panel on higher education.