Online textbooks aid students in the end

The Utah Student Association was recently criticized in Liz Carlston’s column for its “short-term” ideas on combating the excessive prices of textbooks (“Online textbooks hurt students in the end,” Sept. 3). While it is one thing to pursue a short-term end, it is quite another to make an anachronistic argument better suited to the time before the Internet was around. But this is precisely the type of thinking portrayed in Thursday’s opinion piece.
The argument: There is no reason to promote free textbooks because the publishers don’t want us to (I know, a shocker), professors won’t make any money and bookstores will go out of business. Welcome to the 21st century!

On the face of it, a certain part of the argument has some merit. Why would we take away a form of profit for professors who already do not make much money?
Unfortunately, most professors do not earn a significant profit on the textbooks they write. Certain “professors” (think Paul Krugman) make a killing off sales of their textbooks, but these are by far the exception. Ask a few of your professors if they are raking it in from textbook sales.

Don’t worry, MBA students and professors, management and finance textbooks are not our targeted curricula. We are directing our attention primarily to general education textbooks.
The state of the textbook industry is cause for concern. Textbooks have increased at twice the rate of inflation (6 percent) for the last two decades and constitute around 25 percent of educational costs for students at four-year institutions.

Five textbook companies control 80 percent of the textbook market, and they often do not even compete with each other. To say that students should not push a lower-cost (or no-cost) option to compete with this oligopolistic industry is like arguing that no company should try to compete with Wal-Mart simply because they have the superior product.
It was incredibly unfortunate that the author failed to look into the proposal that the USA is actually pursuing. We are searching for grant money and funding from various sources to pay nationally renowned authors to construct open-source textbooks that will be offered free online and at a significantly reduced price for a printed version (60 percent of students still tend to want printed copies). Professors will make plenty of money from sales of the printed version and supplemental material that will be sold separately. And we have talked to many professors who do support our initiative.

Finally, the author failed to mention the other parts of our proposal. We want administrators to adopt policies that push the equal-quality, low-cost option. We want professors to consider price when ordering textbooks and to provide a rationale if they choose the more expensive option. We want bookstores to band together to increase their purchasing power. We want administrators and professors to promote used textbooks, book rental, e-book, etc.

If this is short-term thinking, as students, we are guilty.

Andrew Jensen,
Director of Utah Student Association