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If a 55 percent price increase sounds reasonable to you, you must be contemplating college costs.

That's how much public-university costs have risen over the past 20 years, adjusted for inflation. And that is cheap, compared with the near-doubling that's occurred at private institutions.Little wonder, then, that more than 75 percent of college students are seeking their higher education in the public domain.

Across the nation, the spread between the price of public and private schools is striking. On average, four years at a private college, with room and board, costs $70,456, compared with $28,056 - 60 percent less - for in-state students at a public university. Of course, books, supplies and other expenses drive both those bills still higher.

While it's true that students at pricier schools qualify for more aid, there's usually no getting around the expected family contribution - the amount the federal financial-aid formula says a family must shell out before qualifying for assistance. In that sense, a $10,000 school or a $20,000 one could cost the family the same out-of-pocket, with the extra cost of the more expensive school being covered by aid.

But it's also possible to get a quality education for less than the expected family share, so that students and parents wind up with less debt.

Besides lower tuition, what do the public universities have to offer? Under the right circumstances, a public-college education can be as good as or better than a private school's, says Martin Nemko, a college consultant based in Oakland who is the author of "How to Get an Ivy League Education at a State University" (Avon Books, 1988).

For many students, the quest for higher education starts with one of their state's biggest public universities, most of which offer honors programs that can give students the one-on-one interaction with teachers that's usually associated with private schools.

A handful of public institutions function in many ways like small private colleges - schools such as Mary Washington in Virginia, St. Mary's in Maryland and Sonoma State in California.

"Before you plunk down a dollar on a private school," Nemko says, "these wonderfulbia can be reached separately at httpan find information on most state universities and many private institutions at the University Pages site on the World Wide Web at http://isl-garnet.uah.edu/Universities.