Dec. 3, 2008 -- Zach Hall is a government major at the University of Texas, but in his senior year, he is also learning about finance -- the hard way.
"I am looking at graduating with $27,000, almost $30,000, in student debt, and my parents make $90,000 a year," Hall said. "To me, that is unbelievable, and I blame that, in part, on the tuition increases."
According to a new report by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, college tuition and fees have increased 439 percent since 1982, almost three times higher than the increase in family incomes.
The biennial report found that even after financial aid, a four-year public college cost 28 percent of the median family's income last year; a four-year private school cost a staggering 76 percent.
"If we continue the trend ... we would be looking at a system of higher education that is just not affordable for the middle class," said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.
How has college managed to outpace every other expense, including health care? When it comes to higher learning, Americans are "brand shoppers" who covet what they think is the very best.
"People feel if they don't have an expensive education, they don't have a good education," said Howard Tuckman, dean of the Graduate Business School at Fordham University.
Tuckman pointed to those annual lists of the "Top 100 Colleges" as a sort of "arms race" of higher learning. Over the years, top universities spent billions increasing their stature. As a result, the cost of teachers, faculty and student services went up for everyone else.
Even a public school, like the University of Florida, has to justify a pending 15 percent tuition hike with the explanation: "You get what you pay for."
"It takes a more informed person to realize that cost relates to quality, which relates to the value added in your college education," said Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida.
Colleges' Funds for Financial Aid Fall Short
Many schools also increase tuition in order to give more aid to those in need, but in a vicious cycle, those scholarships often aren't enough to cover the rising tuition.
"We're reaching a point where price is biting," Tuckman said. "If it bites too many people, we'll be forced to give up on that model."
In the current economy, with shrinking state and federal budgets, the authors of the report say the only remedy is to completely overhaul the system in a quest to bring costs down through efficiency.
That might mean earning a degree in three years instead of four, meaning students and teachers may have to forego summer vacations. And lectures over the Internet might have to replace more intimate, personal study groups.
The report's authors say that radical fixes are needed to avert a dire crisis, with America's young generation at risk of entering the work force less educated than their elders and competing with peers around the globe.
U.S. leadership in college enrollment has slipped behind other nations, like Korea and Greece, bringing the overall enrollment of young adults in college down to 34 percent.
"We still have some of the best colleges and universities in the world," said Callan. "But are we the best in the world in terms of educating the most Americans? The answer is no."