For the elite colleges that routinely occupy the top 10 spots in the U.S. News rankings and are tattooed on the American psyche as synonyms for excellence and exclusivity, price no longer matters. In the minds of most of the country's top-performing high school students (and more importantly, their parents), the prestige of attending an Ivy League institution more than outweighs the extra cost [source: Ulrich]. In fact, the excessive cost only adds to the prestige.
It's not all perception, either. That gold-plated name translates into larger paychecks. Several long-term studies have shown that graduates from elite universities make considerably more money than alumni from less prestigious schools — 20 percent more according to one study that tracked the high school class of 1980 [source: Weissman].
The result is a winner takes all college admissions culture. In their quest for the very best education, students and their parents do whatever is necessary to get that name-brand degree, including going into massive debt. The top colleges get richer, get better applicants and don't have to make any concessions to improve efficiency or cut costs because there is no market pressure to do so [source: Ehrenberg]. It's good to be the king; it's rough to be everyone else.