My daughter called me yesterday to complain about the cost of her college textbooks.
One of Caitlin’s upper level Spanish books was going to cost her close to $200. She was thrilled, however, when she found a used older textbook edition — missing the CD — for a mere $15 online. Ironically, it’s the frugality of students like Caitlin which has prompted new college textbooks to be priced like car payments.
Here’s the problem: Before Amazon.com and scores of used online booksellers existed, kids were forced to buy new textbooks from their campus bookstores. Because a single bookstore controlled prices, the cost of a used textbook wasn’t that much less than a new copy. That led to many kids purchasing new textbooks every semester which kept the academic publishers happy.
Now, however, Caitlin and millions of other kids are trying to get the best deals possible from virtual sellers literally anywhere in the world. This ironically has led publishers to fight back with higher prices. New science and math textbooks today typically cost close to $180 and few new titles in other disciplines are priced at less than $120.
When I was in college, a publisher might not revise an edition for five or six years or more. But now publishers are rolling out revised editions frequently to force kids to buy new. Professors aren’t changing the way they teach calculus or Shakespeare, but publishers are desperate to make money. The publishers have jacked up the prices because they only get one shot to make a profit with students before their textbooks end up in the secondary used market.
There are encouraging signs, however, that the textbook business model will soon improve. Pilot textbook projects have begun popping up on various campuses including the University of Texas and the University System of Ohio. The Texas experiment was triggered by a thoughtful piece on the textbook racket by Michael Granof, a business professor at the University of Texas. You can view his piece, entitled, Course Requirement: Extortion, here.
Thomas D. Sigerstad, a business professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland wrote another thoughtful piece that includes ways that students can save money in InsideHigherEd.com.