College textbooks are absurdly expensive for no good reason

There are a lot of good reasons why we should make public college free. Many European countries already do, with great success, and Bernie Sanders has made this a key plank on his presidential campaign’s platform.

However, even if we were to make college free, we would still have work left to do in bringing down costs associated with higher education. This is because the textbook industry operates as a cartel.

The average student at a four year public college spends $655 per year on textbooks, and textbook prices have gone up 812 percent since 1978. This problem starts when the people who decide what books need to be purchased (professors) aren’t the same people who actually purchase the books (the students), and is then exacerbated by the textbook industry and the university, both of which have a vested interest in keeping textbook costs high.

Textbook companies do a few different things to boost their prices. They sell “bundles,” textbooks which include CDs and other materials that 65% of teachers say they have never used, but nevertheless double the price of the product being sold. Textbook publishers only keep books on the shelves for an average of 3.5 years before updating them with new editions, which 76 percent of teaching faculty said were updated in ways that were “justified half the time or less,” with over half of teachers saying that new editions were “rarely to never justified.” Often times, the updates that constitute a new edition merely involve reorganizing identical material onto different pages, which both fulfill the requirement that the edition be “different” while at the same time making it harder for students with earlier editions to follow with the class.

Free the Textbook, via Opensourceway / Creative Commons

Free the Textbook, via Opensourceway / Creative Commons

This behavior inflates textbook costs to a drastic extent. An examination of a Calculus book from 2003 compared to its 1999 previous edition — a four year gap for a course that has remained almost unchanged for ages — found that used copies of the previous edition could be sold for as little as $20 while the new edition was $130, but only for American students. In Canada, the new version of the same book debuted at $97 and the British were able to get it for $65 (all figures in American dollars).

These increased costs help textbook publishers, along with the university bookstores that sell their products, make a lot of money, but we now live in a world where we could theoretically get digital versions of all of our textbooks. A new Nexus 7 tablet can be purchased for 165 dollars — a fourth of what the average four year public university student spends on textbooks. One would think that this would allow educational content to be reproduced for free, save for the cost of the hosting device, yet many textbook companies which use the e-book functionality are still selling the content at ordinary textbook costs.

What’s more, that says nothing as to whether the products are designed to actually work. A few years ago, I bought an “e-book” (in the form of a card with a redeem number on it) from my university bookstore. It cost just over $200, about the same price as the hard copy. But when I attempted to redeem it I discovered that I could not download it to my computer; I had to be logged into their website to access it at all. The measures taken to ensure that the e-book’s information would not be redistributed rendered the product largely unusable.

What’s more, the license I was using was set to expire at the end of the semester. At least when you buy a hard copy of an overpriced textbook the pages don’t go blank after six months.

So the problem is not just the cost of textbook production, per se, but rather that companies can safely charge outlandish prices and engage in extortionary business practices because there is little competition and a captive market. This is characteristic of a cartel, and the issue is caused, in part, by the fact that the people who choose what textbooks are purchased (professors) are not the same people who actually pay for the textbooks (students). And since textbook costs aren’t included in course listings, students don’t have a clear option to pick lower-cost classes — nor should they be encouraged to make that kind of a choice in the first place.

There are many different ways to tackle this problem. For instance, in the last Congress, Senator Dick Durbin (D – IL) sponsored a bill that would have issued competitive grants for universities that conducted pilot programs for more affordable textbook plans, along with opening the door for textbooks to be openly sourced under Creative Commons licenses.

Of course, the bill failed. But the ideas are out there. And eventually, something is going to need to be done, because education is unsustainably expensive in this country.


Max Mills is a 26 year old Texan with a degree in Computer Science. Although he writes about a variety of things, his main focuses are education and political accountability. You can follow him on Twitter at @MaxFMills

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  • Jim P

    Agree 1000% percent. I am a student and found using an online source like
    savemoneyontextbooks.com to be the best solution. I saved over $550 last
    semester. this place shows you all the sellers and prices along with coupons !
    Thank god for this little piece of capitalism because it is saving me a small
    fortune !

  • lucia4

    The James Stewart book, Calculus, 7th Edition is $238 at Amazon, while in Brazil is R$162 which is a little less then US$50. I think it is a joke to charge US$238 for a Calculus book.

  • I think at the top of the list is that the states no longer fund the “state” colleges and universities. I laugh at the idea of free college education. For anyone? At any school? Even if Sanders could get elected president there’s no way he could get that through congress. A more reasonable proposal would be to cut (or eliminate) the interest on the student loans, but even that is going to be a hard sell.

  • I think I was more frustrated by the times I had to buy the text book AND buy a separate study guide or specific notes on the material created specifically by the professor. They always made it sound like the supplemental material was optional, but then they’d start teaching directly off of it so if you didn’t have it, you’d be lost.

  • Use very particular editions of their text books – and they are sure to release new editions almost every year, with just enough changed to make sure they undercut the used market. I bought most of my text books used, because it was all I could afford, so I was often down an edition. I clearly remember most of my texts having all the exact same information as the current editions, it was just rearranged in the book so I had to go hunting for what I needed. They didn’t change a single word or chart, they just moved things around and called it a new edition.

  • 2karmanot

    It’s absolutely outrageous. The corporitization of higher education and the proliferation of fly-by-night, scam, online universities has driven America’s ‘learning’ into the mire of an untenable black hole of debt and driven tens of thousands of qualified low income students out of the system. Worse, tuition rates have gone through the roof because the lucrative pull of foreign students, who according to my still teaching colleagues have lowered standards to maintain the gravy train. We can pretty much thank Republicans/St. Reagan for the beginning of the end and the Democrats for aiding and abetting a national system of such complexity and incompetence as to stupefy even a genius. BTW, bureaucrats, you can’t run a successful empire with stupid people for much longer. Professor Mensa has spoken.

  • Demosthenes

    Prices on textbooks are starting to come down. Many parents and students buy college books online. We have saved a small fortune doing that!

  • It’s not so much a matter of “value” as it is that they don’t have the money to pay for them. “Value” is a subjective term, but you either have the money or you don’t so “value” is irrelevant to this discussion. I’m not concerned with upper middle class people deciding whether or not they paid too much for the book. I’m concerned that students from poor families, many of whom are the first in their families to go to college, are not doing well in their courses because they can’t afford the books. (The drop out rate for this group is very high although some mentoring programs have gotten very good results.)

  • RepubAnon

    Indeed – check out the comments about textbooks in the 1943 book “Barefoot Boy With Cheek” by Max Shulman – as I recall, the Sociology professor’s first day of class lecture ended with”…Don’t try and buy any of these books used, because I wrote a whole new set last summer. And don’t try to sell them at the end of the semester, because I’m going to write a whole new set next summer. You don’t think I live off my salary here, do you? The third assistant coach of the football team makes more than I do…”

    As for courses where the content doesn’t change over the years, such as Calculus, I’d suggest generating e-books of out-of-copyright versions. It wouldn’t work for history or the sciences – but Newtonian Physics, Algebra, Calculus and the like don’t change from year to year… so why have new editions?

    The calculus book my grandfather learned from was clearly written and much easier to understand than the bloated copy I received. (A used tetbook store manager once told me that the textbook companies hire English majors at a pittance to re-word the text from one version to the next -as the English majors often don’t understand the math and science books they re-write, they become harder and harder to read.)

  • Luigi DaMan

    $655 a year? Where did you get that low ball figure? My son spends that each semester at Kent State. And worse than the texts, he has to pay hundreds of dollars to buy passwords to online study guides just to complete his homework. Welcome to the Koch’s Educational System of Entrenched Poverty!

  • Indigo

    “The business of America is business.”
    -President Calvin Coolidge

  • HeartlandLiberal

    I graduated from Birmingham-Southern College in 1969, one of the finer private four year schools in the Alabama. At that time, $655 would have paid a full 1/3 or more of my tuition for the whole year. I am not sure I understand how anyone can afford to go to college anymore? I had student loans, but they were reasonable and not life crushing after I graduated, and I was able to pay them off over time after I finished grad school. Now people graduate and owe debts of $100,000 to a $250,000. It is insane.

  • HeatherENowak
  • goulo

    Bummer; I was apparently lucky with my teachers/courses in this regard, at least; even if the books were overpriced, at least I read them and got value from them. :)

    Now I’m curious what proportion of courses actually use the required books. And whether the ratio has gotten worse in recent years (I was in college several decades ago.)

  • crazymonkeylady

    I bought an Organic Chemistry book for $235. When I sold it back to the book store, I only got less than $100 and it was pristine! Not a mark on it. I felt so ripped off. It’s such a scam.

  • Got that right. I literally could no longer afford to attend my alma mater, CMU.

  • Yes, the textbook situation is horrible. I went to a university library “town hall” and several professors complained that some of their students can’t afford to purchase the textbook and they are looking for ways (online, a library copy on reserve) to remedy that situation. This is a state school and most of the students are not wealthy. Since we have students going full time who are homeless (living out of their cars, showering at the gym, etc.) it’s not like they have the money and are blowing it on pizza and beer. They really don’t have the money.

    That said, textbooks are way down the list of their problems. Tuition has increased at over 3x the rate of inflation. My state has gone from providing 80% of state college funding to less than 20% (but still want to tell the universities what they can and can’t do). These are problems that are just getting worse, mostly thanks to corporatist boards and the hacks they hire to be administrators.

  • I had a book recently that was written by the professor but it was short (musical exercises for an ear training class). He just had them copied at the copy center and we bought them there at the cost of duplication. $8 as I remember. No complaints. Another professor did the same thing. I think I paid $5 for the only available (so far as I know) Russian Diction for Singers textbook. I’m sure the bookstore in both cases would have tripled the price (or more).

  • I’ve had it happen quite a few times, especially classes that required more than 2 books.

  • I don’t either. The books were ridiculously expensive. I put pdfs from various books on Blackboard for them to read. No more from any one so that I have copyright problems.

  • There are obviously some people being paid off for shady dealings on college campuses. Check out an outfit called Higher One which processes the refunds on student loans (the part left over after tuition that is supposed to help pay for books and other expenses). They take 3-4 business days to process these and try to pressure students into getting that refund on a pay-to-swipe debit card by offering a faster turnaround on that. It’s obvious that someone at every university using that is getting a kickback. There’s so much more and a lot of it has to do with the universities now being run by corporate hacks instead of educators.

  • That is totally correct. Also, they come out with new editions quickly these days so that buying a used textbook isn’t a possibility.

  • I once found the book for a class also for sale in the bookstore in a different section for about 20% less. They crank up the prices because they can. And it got a lot worse when the universities started letting Barnes & Nobles and similar companies operate the bookstores.

  • College textbooks have been a ripoff probably since before you were born. I don’t know if you saw my comments or those of Indigo below, but this has nothing to do with the Internet age and everything to do with captive customers and a monopolistic, unregulated marketplace.

    For decades now, we’ve been told the latest technological innovation would make expensive textbooks a thing of the past. And time and time again, the publishers have ensured no such thing would come to pass, not even when it became possible to use electronic-only books.

  • djny10003

    They’re expensive b/c people don’t buy books as a pastime anymore, so the publishers crank up the textbook prices, to make the bottom line.

  • goulo

    Interesting; I can’t remember that ever happening in any of my college classes (undergrad or grad). We used the books (and usually they were pretty good books). That said, I do agree that the books are often absurdly overpriced.

  • I attended college from 1981-85, and it’s basically the same experience, and the answer has always been the same: The publishers charge that much because they can. They have a monopoly, and as it is with doctors and prescription meds, the publishers lobby the hell out of university administrators and professors to use very particular editions of their books.

    The one good thing that’s happened with the advent of the Internet era is it is now sometimes possible to locate and buy used copies or simply cheaper editions.

    The education and training of our young people is the ultimate investment where everybody wins. It’s a crime that higher education and vocational technical training aren’t free in this country.

    Then again, America worships money over all else, including the betterment, health, and well-being of its citizens.

  • judybrowni

    Yes! When I went back to school for the odd course I’d always buy a previous edition on Amazon, and the poor 18 year olds didn’t know that was.an option until I filled them in.

  • Indigo

    I started college in 1959 and my first lesson in college life was that textbooks are way overpriced. That hasn’t changed, the prices continue to be overpriced. In the late 60s, shop-lifting became normative for a while. Then the Man cracked down and prices went even higher. Then, to add to the excitement, it became difficult during the Reagan Repression to even find some texts (the controversial ones like Marx and Sartre and so on) and there for a while, memo-graphed handouts prevailed. I’m not in the story anymore, emeritus and all, but I see professors are using pdf handouts. I don’t have a handy solution to offer but it does seem to me that inflated textbook prices offer under the table benefits to somebody. I wonder who . . . ?

  • I specifically do *not* assign a textbook for my class for this reason. As a film production instructor, I found a wonderful book that is a like a bible for anybody wanting to make a film, but my department told me I could not use it because it didn’t meet “textbook requirments” which I took to mean it didn’t have questions at the end of each chapter. So I just opted out and use pdfs instead.

  • I can’t remember how many times I was forced to buy the book only to have the professor NOT teach from it. Its frustrating. Why make me spend hundreds of dollars for a book then? The education industry is a scheme to separate us from our money.

  • FLL

    The only way around this is if one of the professors on the faculty publishes his own book, but you can even run into problems going that route. A professor on our faculty had his own ESL pronunciation textbook printed by Barnes & Noble, but B & N wound up charging students some ridiculous price, and the professor got almost none of B & N’s obscene profit. So this summer, the author, another professor and I are editing his old material and creating a PDF version that is available for reading or download on the college’s online lab—for free. We can even print small sections on the college’s copying machines if we need to.

    The only way to accomplish what you’re talking about is for a few faculty members, such as the three of us in my department, to create a PDF textbook and offer it free online. Actually, our college used to have its own printing center that would publish faculty material in quantity, but it’s too expensive for the college to do that for the time being.

  • Baal

    My advice to students. Go on Amazon or Ebay and see if there is an International Edition of your text. In standard science courses there often will be. It will be 1/3 or 1/2 the price and it will be identical to the latest US edition except possibly the cover will look different. Publishers gouge American students. I also recommend simply not buying the latest edition if your professor is ok with it (or sometimes even if they aren’t). The text for the undergraduate (junior level) science course I teach is revised every two years. What they need to know about the subject at this level does not change every two years, and on rare cases where there is something more recently discovered that I feel they need to know, I assign the original article as a special reading assignment. I tell this to my students on the first day of class.

    Also for my course there are about three widely used competing texts. They are essentially the same. It doesn’t matter which one they use. I tell the students to get whichever of the three is at the lowest price (also older or international edition). The downside is that they have to be engaged enough to follow along in class even though the chapter orders in these texts are not the same. If students can’t do that, there is not much hope for them anyway.

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