Students need to put pressure on the textbook market to get fair prices

Student Public Interest Research Groups reported in 2010 that “textbook wholesale prices have risen more than four times the rate of inflation over the last two decades (1990-2009).” Every college student knows textbook prices are insane. Collegiate Times cited College Board’s 2009 statistics in a 2010 article: “Books and supplies cost students at four-year public schools $1,122 per year on average, or $561 per semester.”

These costs might make sense if they represented the transaction cost of exchanging valuable new information, but since when have most undergraduate courses provided students with cutting-edge information? There haven’t been widespread advances every year in how beginning students conceptually understand principles of geometry. There is no new literature from the Romantic period — Wordsworth and Coleridge died a long time ago. The periodic table was last updated in 2012, but it’s doubtful that any Chemistry 1010 course covers the properties of the highly radioactive lab creations flerovium and livermorium. History overview courses show stubborn resistance to “revisionist” history and new anthropological findings, and students have been dosed with Eurocentrism for decades.

Introductory course textbooks don’t update their information — they update their answer sheets and layout so students will have to purchase the newer version. Universities incentivize bookstores to keep students buying high-priced textbooks. Professors are courted by textbook companies with benefits such as lecture material packages that make their classroom jobs easier. In a 2005 New York Times op-ed, Ian Ayres explained what it means for a professor to assign a textbook that they have publishing credit for: “I earn a $10.30 royalty on every copy of my textbook that a student buys. Instead of just trying to get the best book for my class (and to do so I should weigh both quality and price), I might also consider assigning my own book and increasing my profit.”

With the advent of Massive Open Online Courses and other various free online resources, it’s obvious that this is extortion on the part of the higher education system. Anyone can learn pretty much any undergraduate material for free. It is only because the university system has a chokehold on personal accreditation in the United States that these prices can be charged for information that is virtually free.

Of course, this has only served to create an alternate exchange of textbook information. Instead of the fraternity test binder, students now sometimes turn to torrents and filesharing sites for textbooks. Legal economies also exist to undercut prices: Independent bookstores often provide exchange services, publishing platforms sell less-expensive e-books and subscription services, such as chegg.com, offer less expensive rental alternatives than university bookstores.

Buying textbooks no one will ever read again at prices five times the cost of any market-priced nonfiction tome is unwise. Students should explore the burgeoning alternate market for textbooks and exert market pressure on normalized textbook sales outlets to reduce their prices. Professors banning e-books and laptops in lecture should be asked why they are resistant to alternate methods of obtaining the same information: Are they just tech illiterate and unwilling to see their students as adults, or are they financially incentivized to get students to purchase hardcovers?

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