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.