These days on college campuses, aspiration is colliding with reality.
During the last 30 years, the cost of tuition and fees has nearly tripled. Paying for college has become the typical family's second-largest investment, behind the mortgage.
Temple University has raised tuition every year since 1995 - this year 9.9 percent for in-state students.
West Chester University, along with the 13 other state-owned colleges, hiked tuition 7.5 percent.
At Ivy League University of Pennsylvania, tuition rose 3.9 percent to $42,098 a year. Throw in a dormitory bed, meals, and books, and the price reaches $57,360.
Steve Cohen, coauthor of Getting In!, a guide to admissions, said the cost had gone from high to higher, with no end in sight.
"It's driven by supply and demand," he said, "and demand has grown."
Overall, college enrollment grew a healthy 9 percent between 1989 and 1999 - but a phenomenal 38 percent in the following decade, from 14.8 million to 20.4 million, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
That increase occurred as a college degree, once a sure ticket to a well-paying, fulfilling career, has become a minimum requirement for job-seekers - but too often, not enough to get them hired.
Perry Morgan, a partner in JLM Design Group L.L.C., an architecture firm in Plymouth Meeting, has watched in anguish as his son, Zachary, has sent out resumé upon resumé.
He graduated near the top of his class in a five-year architecture/landscape program at Pennsylvania State University - and can't find work. For a while, he took a manual-labor job, digging holes for a landscape company in Florida, but eventually that ended. Now he's home - and thinking of moving to Canada for opportunities.
"Hard, hard worker, excellent grades, no job," Morgan said. "He doesn't want to live in the basement; he wants to get on with his life."
Part of the reason colleges cost so much is that they've always been complicated, labor-intensive enterprises, requiring highly trained and educated personnel - and lots of it, if a school hopes to maintain an attractive faculty-student ratio.
But now, the search for students has led many colleges into an expensive competition to create spaces that are newer, nicer, and more technologically advanced than those offered by rivals.
Prospective students who tour Temple make a mandatory stop at the new TECH Center, a 75,000-square-foot lab with 700 computers, 600 workstations, 100 wireless loaner laptops, 13 group-study rooms, and, of course, a Starbucks Café.
Another big factor in costs is the recession. More than 40 states have cut funding for higher education, often at historic levels, leaving colleges to pass those expenses on. At the University of Washington, tuition and fees went up 20 percent this year.
A third factor is that colleges charge more money because they can. The nonprofit Delta Cost Project found that colleges covered those government reductions by hiking tuition - not by tightening institutional spending.
Penn State officials estimate that a full-time, in-state freshman would pay $25,416 a year, an out-of-stater $39,802.
Cyndi Bergamini and her husband, of Holland, Bucks County, saved for years to send their daughter to college - and still fell short, as rising costs outpaced their ability to put money away. Alyson, 18, is a freshman at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va.
"I would have rather she'd gone to West Chester, because it was closer," Bergamini said, "but the tuition was outrageous."
Aid from the Virginia school helped cover about $17,000 of the $29,000 out-of-state cost, leaving the family to pay about $11,000 - roughly $5,000 less than the sticker price at West Chester.
On the horizon is college for their 15-year-old son, Sal.
"I'm not even there yet," Bergamini said. "It's if, when, and what he wants to do - and what kind of money he can get."
In 2010-11, the average annual in-state tuition and fees at public, four-year colleges reached $7,605, up from $2,119 in 1980-81, according to a Pew Research Center study. That's a 259 percent increase.
At private schools, the cost grew from $9,535 to $27,293 - a 186 percent increase.
The averages for tuition and fees don't include housing, food, books, and incidentals. For many parents, a year of college can equal a year's salary. Students worry where they'll get the money.
"It's not something that students will talk about all the time, because it's a personal issue," said Matt Cordeiro, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly. "But it's one of the leading causes of stress."
In New Jersey, State Sen. Dawn Marie Addiego and Assemblyman Scott Rudder have introduced a bill that would ban state colleges from raising tuition more than 2 percent a year.
"I hear the frustrations of parents," said Tori Haring-Smith, president of private Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. "College does cost a lot. But the same people who readily invest $30,000 in a car that depreciates the minute it is driven off the lot will complain about investing $30,000 in a college education that does not depreciate, but rather appreciates in value over time."
Administrators there cut costs by combining departments, joining a larger health-care consortium, refinancing debt, and closing a money-losing night school.
Still, the annual cost of attending W&J has grown 66 percent in nine years - from $27,650 to $45,980.
"I don't apologize for the cost, given the value we deliver," Haring-Smith said - with 91 percent of last year's graduates hired or admitted to law or medical school when they received their diplomas. "That does not mean I don't do everything in my power to keep that cost low. Every day, we talk about it."
This year, one school offered something no one else seems to have considered:
A price cut.
In Tennessee, Sewanee: The University of the South reduced its total annual cost 10 percent, from about $46,110 to $41,000. And it did so without closing programs or laying off staff.
"The primary goal was to make a statement, at a critical time in the life of higher education, that accessibility and affordability were being put increasingly at risk," said Vice Chancellor John McCardell Jr.
A big problem for Sewanee and other private schools has been the policy of setting high tuition, then offsetting that cost through large student aid. For Sewanee, continuing to raise fees an annual average of 5.9 percent and then to discount those prices 45 percent amounted to "a slow-death scenario," McCardell said.
So what happened when the price dropped?
Enrollment was better than expected, alumni giving went up, and some parents donated the $5,000 price difference back to the university. The deficit turned out to be half of what was projected, at $1.5 million, and Sewanee got the bump in publicity it sought: Campus visits increased 60 percent.
For many students, the increases in cost translate to debt - a staggering $34,430 average per borrowing graduate in 2010-11, up from $19,927 in 2000-01, according to FinAid.org, a website that studies student aid.
All of which has some students and parents wondering: Is it worth it?
The short answer is yes - but with dissent and caveat.
A Pew analysis found that the typical adult with a bachelor's degree earns an additional $650,000 over his or her working life, compared with the typical high school graduate.
However, the analysis also found that the gains vary widely by field.
"The added earnings from most bachelor's degrees seem to exceed the typical costs to acquire them," senior researcher Richard Fry wrote, "but bachelor's degrees in some fields of study seem to be on the bubble."
And those figures rest on the assumption that a graduate can find a job.
A study by the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which is critical of college spending, found that universities were turning out graduates faster than the labor market could create jobs that require degrees. In 2008, the report said, 34 percent of employed graduates held low-skill jobs.
Modlesky, the Shippensburg graduate, knew she wanted to be a journalist before she left her home in Berwick, Pa. After graduation, she found work with a Harrisburg public-affairs network, and recently started a new job at a media company in New York.
She can afford to pay only the interest, not the principal, on the student loans that got her through college.
"It was definitely worth it," she said. "I am employed, and it's working out. But it's hard."
Contact staff writer Jeff Gammage at 215-854-2415, firstname.lastname@example.org,
or @JeffGammage on Twitter.