Textbook Turmoil: The Hidden Costs of College
Written by Dale Stephens
When you pay $60,000 dollars a year in college tuition you find yourself asking the question: “Where is my money going?”. Is it going to all of those free t-shirts and swag given out at every student event? Is it all of those free cookies that they coerce you with at open houses, orientations, and parent events? Or perhaps all of your money is hiding in that utterly useless rock-climbing wall. Nevertheless, it’s going somewhere, and with such a large bill you would think that practically everything is included, until you go to the bookstore. Last Tuesday I was in a state of shock — sticker shock that is — as I received last minute additions to my textbook shopping list. My required Spanish textbook: $300. My required Political Science book: $200. When I tried to find used books online, I realized that no site would ship them to me in time for class. I was forced to drag my feet to the university’s own bookstore, where I bought their monopolized goods for the full shelf price. My total book expenditure – with some purchased online and some purchased in the bookstore – came to $716.72. If I purchased all my books from the bookstore it would have totaled $843.50.
Frustrated with the system, I went on the web to see if I was alone. I quickly found that the rising cost of textbooks — much like rising college tuition — has accelerated in recent years. According to the Labor Department, textbook prices as of July 2012 were 8.1 percent higher than in July 2011, while prices for all goods only grew by 1.4 percent overall (1). The trend of textbook costs outpacing other benchmarks began slowly in the 90s, and then really took off at the turn of the century (Figure 1).
During this period, the internet has allowed information to become more and more accessible. How, then, are publishers getting away with dramatically raising the prices of their information? Are the secrets of the Spanish language hidden exclusively in my $300 textbook? Does printing, organizing, and formatting really add hundreds of dollars of value to the information that I can find on the internet or at my local library?
According to College Board, students at 4-year public universities are now spending an average of $1,168 per year on textbooks and supplies (2). With most novels debuting in hardcover at $30 or less, I find these costs to be exorbitant and appalling. Fortunately, I’m not alone; I have allies in my fellow students, access-to-information advocates, and even federal legislators.
Eric Weil, a managing partner at market research firm Student Monitor, found in a recent survey that around 75 percent of students agree that the cost of textbooks is “excessive”. College students are increasingly searching for alternatives to new hardcovers, turning to used books, rentals, and ebooks when possible. In fact, while textbook prices continue to rise, the amount of money that students are actually spending on them has begun to decrease. In the 2010-11 academic year, full-time college students at four-year institutions spent an average of $534 on books, while in 2005-06 they spent as much as $644 (3). Soon, publishing companies will be unable to ignore the trend towards digitalization and freedom of information. They will have to make a choice between significantly trimming their profits and shutting down their printing presses for good.
Standing alongside students in their campaign for textbook alternatives, many educational advocacy groups have long recognized the gratuitousness of textbook prices. Nicole Allen, director of the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign by Student Public Interest Research Groups has been pushing for open textbooks since 2003. Her most recent campaign, called “Textbook Rebellion”, calls for university professors to take the lead in textbook reform. You can help her initiative by signing a petition.
The final group pushing for textbook reform is a handful of congressmen who passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. This bill described a set of rules for publishing companies whose clients are major universities, aimed at ensuring schools are completely informed about the books they’re buying and the prices they’re paying. Though it’s unclear how effective this relatively small step was in making textbooks more affordable, the act was nonetheless encouraging; popular frustration with textbook prices is evidently so clear that even politicians are willing to take a firm stand against them.
Though publishing houses are the direct culprits of textbook price gouging, universities are completely capable of changing the status quo. If every college made a concerted effort to move away from overpriced textbooks and invest in ebooks and online databases, the cost of textbooks would fall overnight. But unfortunately, academia has a monopoly on higher degrees and has no interest in making their expensive educations accessible to everyone. (After all, it is their professors that wrote these pricy books.) Thus, as hackademics, we have a clear responsibility to get involved in freedom-of-information initiatives and develop viable alternatives to the textbook system. In our pursuit of alternatives to higher education, we must remember that we cannot create new educational systems, unless we revamp educational resources along with them.