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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