Squeezed by state budget cuts and dwindling endowments, four-year public colleges and universities raised their tuitions and fees by an average of 9.6 percent for the current school year -- the largest price hike in a decade, the College Board reported yesterday.

The tuition increases were accompanied by a 6 percent jump in room-and-board charges, raising the average annual cost of attending a four-year public university for students who live on campus to $9,663 -- $672 more than last fall.

The tuition increases at public schools outpaced those at the nation's private, four-year colleges and universities, where tuition rose 5.8 percent to an average of $18,273 this fall. Room-and-board charges at private colleges increased 4.6 percent to an average of $6,779, bringing the average total to $24,752.

Higher education officials said the price increases at four-year public colleges are a consequence of a slowing economy that has crimped tax revenue, prompting state officials to raise tuitions across the country.

The report confirms "that the poor performance of the economy has had a substantial and negative impact on tax revenue and endowments, and consequently college tuitions," said David Ward, president of the American Council on Education, which represents 1,800 colleges and universities. "This effect can be seen most vividly in the public sector of higher education, where enormous cuts in state appropriations have led governors and legislatures to enact tuition increases."

Returning to rate increases last experienced in the 1980s, the hike in four-year state tuitions far outpaced the rise in median family incomes and the consumer price index.

The cost of attending two-year public schools increased an average of 7.9 percent this year to $1,735, while the cost of two-year private schools rose 7.5 percent to $9,890, according to the College Board, an association of colleges and universities that administers the SAT exams.

"We're definitely concerned about rising tuition around the country," said Mary Cunningham, legislative director for the United States Student Association, which represents college students across the country. "Students are seeing college costs rising more and more out of reach."

Confronted with deep cuts in the state budget, leaders of Maryland's public university system, where tuitions were already among the highest in the nation for public colleges, last spring approved a 5.5 percent tuition and fee increase for in-state undergraduates at most campuses. With the state facing a projected $1.3 billion budget deficit next year, it is widely acknowledged that more increases are in the offing.

In Virginia, tuition and fees at public colleges and universities increased by an average of 11 percent last year, and increases at George Mason University were about 25 percent. The state's colleges and universities also slashed budgets by 10 percent. The cuts resulted in larger classes and diminished services, from reduced library hours to fewer student slots in some programs.

Even as students adjust to those changes, Virginia higher education officials also are planning a round of mid-year tuition increases to compensate for cuts imposed to close the state's $1 billion budget gap. Additional tuition increases are expected next fall.

State government budget problems extend far beyond the Washington area. Virtually every state is confronted by budget shortfalls that, combined, total $57 billion, according to the National Governors Association. "Budgets are a problem," said Christine LaPaille, the association's director of public affairs. " Higher education unfortunately tends to see cuts accompanied by tuition increases to deal with that."

Despite the cost increases, College Board officials said higher education remains affordable for most Americans. Overall, they said, 70 percent of four-year college students attend schools where tuition and fees are less than $8,000 a year.

Moreover, they said, financial aid cushions the cost of college for many students. At public four-year colleges and universities, more than 60 percent of full-time students receive some type of financial aid, as do more than 75 percent of full-time students attending private four-year colleges and universities.

But much of that aid often comes as loans, which can leave students burdened by debt for years after graduation. While a record $90 billion in financial aid was available to students this fall, loans accounted for 54 percent of that amount and grants just 39 percent of the total. As recently as 1980, loans accounted for 41 percent of students' financial aid packages.

In 1999-2000, the last academic year for which statistics are available, more than 60 percent of bachelor's degree recipients in the nation graduated with student loan debt. Among those who attended private institutions, the median amount owed was $17,250, while the median among graduates of public colleges was $15,375.

Tuition increases have eroded the value of Pell Grants, the federal government's largest grant program for low-income students. Twenty years ago, the maximum grant accounted for 84 percent of the average cost of a four-year public institution. The top grant now covers just 42 percent of the cost. In addition, several recent reports have documented that an increasing share of financial aid is being awarded to students based on merit, rather than financial need.

"We simply cannot continue to force qualified students who have above-average financial need to assume unreasonable levels of debt to pay for their college educations," said Dallas Martin, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.