The soaring costs of college textbooks
Textbook prices have risen more than three times the rate of inflation since the 1970s
“Data from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, shows that the price of college textbooks has risen over 1500% since 1970, more than three times the rate of inflation”
One of the first things students learn when they get to college, is that it’s not going to be as free as they think it is. One of the main reasons for this is because college textbooks can often be prohibitively expensive. Indeed, most people, if they saw any other book with a price tag of €80, would pass it over without a second glance, but when it comes to textbooks, students don’t have much of a choice.
Data from the National Bureau of Labor Statistics in the US, shows that the price of college textbooks has risen over 1500% since 1970, more than three times the rate of inflation (calculated from the Consumer Price Index). Textbooks can often cost in excess of $300, a cost that few students will have budgeted in before coming to college. While the costs aren’t quite as steep here in Ireland, they’re still well over the cost of normal books. A book such as Mankiw’s “Principles of Economics” costs over $350 on Amazon in the US, and can be bought for about €80 in Easons.
“A survey they carried out indicated that the majority of faculty believe that new editions are only justified less than half the time, yet publishers continue to consistently update them”
The reason given most often for this is that the market for college textbooks acts much like the market for prescription drugs, in that the primary people who choose the product, aren’t those who pay for it. Much like a doctor prescribing you a drug to take, a professor assigns you a textbook that you must use for their course. This means that professors are going to care much less about the price of a textbook when assigning them, allowing publishers to raise prices much higher than they otherwise would.
A study done by the University of Michigan examined other possible reasons for these massive increases, identifying two factors in particular. The first is the revision cycle of three to four years, which is common to most textbooks, whether or not the book needs updating. Professors often require students to purchase the most recent edition, even if the changes are only superficial, so that all students can follow along easily. This means that students are often unable to purchase used textbooks, which would be much cheaper, and when they attempt to sell their book at the end of the year, they get much less money in return.
The California Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), which is taking on the publishing industry, claims that new editions of textbooks are published every three to four years, and they cost, on average, 50% more than used copies of the previous edition. A survey they carried out indicated that the majority of faculty believe that new editions are only justified less than half the time, yet publishers continue to consistently update them.
The second factor the study identifies is the recent trend of offering workbooks and online materials with the textbook. According to CALPIRG, one such textbook was available bundled with additional material, or unbundled by itself, and the bundled version was more than twice as expensive as the unbundled version. Often times though, students don’t have the option of purchasing an unbundled version, and so much pay for more expensive versions, with online material they may never use.
One final factor sometimes attributed to the increasing costs is textbook piracy. As students become more and more tech savvy, they are able to find free versions of textbooks online, thus negating their need to purchase the actual book. This causes a decrease in textbook sales, and with publishers still wanting to reap the same profits, they increase prices in order to make back that money.
Finding a solution
“The US Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) believes the solution is open educational resources, written under the understanding that they’ll be made available for free online”
There do exist cheaper alternatives to most buying print textbooks at the moment, however they do have their drawbacks. Most college libraries have copies of all the major textbooks used for their courses, which means you can avail of them for free. The downside of this though, is that there are nearly always more students than textbooks, so when it comes to exam time, you can find yourself without a book to revise. E-books are also on the rise, and digital books often cost much less than their printed counterparts, although they can still be very expensive.
The US has also introduced a number of bills to try and deal with the problem, such as the College Opportunity and Affordability Act, although none seem to have had a lasting effect. The US Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) believes the solution is open educational resources, written under the understanding that they’ll be made available for free online. Last year, U.S PIRG reviewed the use of open textbooks at five major US universities, and found that students saved an average of $128 per course.
There are still many challenges to using open textbooks though, the biggest being the lack of awareness about them. If faculty don’t realise there is an open textbook available for their discipline, they won’t be able to assign it. Even when they do know about one, they can often be reluctant to assign it, assuming that as they’re free they don’t meet the same standards as traditional textbooks.
At the end of the day, it’s clear that something needs to be done about the problem. Without the large-scale introduction of effective measures to combat rising prices, students will continue to have to pay more and more for textbooks they have no choice in buying.