I found an industry besides healthcare whose prices are rising as fast as college tuition! Not coincidentally, it is the textbook industry. According to the GAO, textbook prices are increasing at twice the rate of inflation, lagging tuition by only a bit. The report projected textbook costs of $1000/year for college students, and that was in 2006. It was enough of an issue to spur new federal regulations in 2010 aimed at driving down textbook pricing by disallowing bundling of other materials with textbooks and mandating price disclosures to professors.
Why have textbook publishers been able to continue jacking up prices regardless of overall economic conditions? As Anya Kamenetz pointed out in an insightful post in the NYT, the issue is not rising costs, it is the publishers’ business model. Students are a captive audience, and are forced to buy whatever books their professors assign. This makes textbooks a cash cow for publishers who are being severely squeezed in all of their other markets.
This is an issue that is relatively easy for faculty to address. As Kamenetz points out, there are a large and growing number of alternatives to textbooks. I personally haven’t used one in my classes for years. I make do with my own course materials supplemented by articles, blogs, and other readings. I haven’t used them yet, but I’m intrigued by Flat World Knowledge, who provide open source textbooks for college professors. These online alternatives not only reduce costs to students, but they are also more relevant to them than boring tomes that become outdated as soon as they are printed.