The Textbook Scam

Back to school for university students means spending boatloads of money in pursuit of a degree. For better or worse, billions of dollars will be spent nationwide in all manners of universities from traditional to online. No place more is that money unwisely spent than in college bookstores across the country. In primary and secondary schools, at least as far as I know, books are part of a budget for the school, providing copies to students and replacing them in a cycle every few years or so. (Math books one year, Science next year, etc.) But in college, the student is responsible for the book. Generally the professor chooses a particular book (or books) to teach from the publishers, which is ordered by the university bookstore, which is made available to students. The following is a very, very common email that highlights a major problem in the textbook market: (credit to imagur)

Alright, first things first. A traditional courseload for a full time university student is 12 credit hours. In a two semester academic calendar system, courses are generally worth 3 credit hours apiece (Math, Language, and Science can be 4 or 5 credits depending on the extra lab requirements). This means over the course of an academic year, students will be taking around 8-10 classes, which at a minimum is 8-10 books. English and Literature classes, for example, will normally cover many books but generally not large academic texts. Classes in psychology, science, or business among many others will usually stick to one book a piece. According to an old article from the washingtonpost.com, students in the US (as of 2008) were spending somewhere between $700-1100 dollars a semester for books not including special supplies for those students in Science or Arts (which is prohibitively expensive in its own right. I feel for those students, especially the art students because it really adds up over the course of your degree). The article also discusses the fact that inflation in the last 10 years or so has risen about 3% while textbooks have raised prices more than 6% on average and that the number of textbook publishers has shrunk down to a handful of super-conglomerates (like McGraw Hill).

An important point was brought up during a discussion in one of my business classes, one that I found extremely relevant.

“Is there a fundamental change in the content of or the way that we teach elementary History, Math, or Science?”

Probably not. I would not argue that science is an ever changing field as more research and experiments are being conducted and the continuing charge of new technology opens up new veins of information every day. But teaching about photons or cell cycles should not require a new textbook edition every year. Or every two years. How about math? Does College Algebra or Calculus change from year to year? How about the related field of Accounting as shown in that image above? Is there anything other than a change of problems in the books that would justify a new edition? Did something drastic happen in the meticulous balance of Assets, Liabilities, and Equity that must be taught immediately with this new version? Of course not.* The Wikipedia article on textbooks brings up several areas in which publishers are wrenching money out of the pockets of their customers, methods such as bundling CDs or one time use online content codes destroys the sell-back or resale value of the books.

*Now this doesn’t mean that I’m against innovations in education. Far from it, I wholeheartedly support creative education techniques that help students learn. There are new avenues in all fields that make learning the material easier and stays with the student in a more effective manner, which I think have the opportunity to really impact the system as a whole. Having said that, the textbook publishers do not hold such a view but rather are out to make a buck on what has been a highly unregulated market.

Reselling books was among the most humbling experiences of my first semester in college. For the approximately $500 dollars worth of books that I purchased, I was getting back around $70 (the bookstore would not take a couple of books due to the fact that the professor had not said that it was being used the following semester). For those of you not quick on the calculator, I would be receiving 14% back for the books that I had bought some 3 months earlier. Information in textbooks, apparently, has a much higher depreciation value than worn underwear. This is commonplace however. Referring back to the analysts at the Washington Post, students are likely to receive somewhere between 5-35% of the book’s new sale value when selling back to the bookstore, with the average textbook seeing somewhere between a 6 month-18 month lifespan before becoming prohibitively valueless. So college students (as most hopeless individuals would likely do) blow that meager money on booze and try to erase that dirty feeling you get when you know you’re getting fleeced.**

**On that note, I think there is some validity in liquor stores in college towns hiring extra staff to create a department to trade used textbooks for alcohol. I imagine they would make a killing. Imagine college seniors trading in their last set of textbooks and getting a alcohol voucher and a complementary glass of champagne. They are already heavily in debt so the meager sum would not be worth too much to them, the store would likely be able to make a little money on the textbook resale through less than standard practices, and you instantly become the#1 choice for students in the area.

Given the inventiveness of students as well as the power of the internet, there are steps being made to remedy this problem. Sites such as Half.com or Coursesmart are helping students find alternatives to the high prices of the university bookstore. Half.com is an ebay alternative that is a resource that connects sellers and buyers for textbooks across the nation as well as companies that are selling at reduced prices. Coursesmart provides online copies of the text for download or online access to the text at greatly reduced prices. The online aspect is interesting, especially given that eReaders are becoming more and more prevalent. I would have to agree with my Information Systems professor that the eReaders may have the ability to replace the traditional textbooks if the publishers can agree (as it stands they are making too much money to abandon the industry) to publish ebooks. This is not stopping students who have set up lots of torrent sites to share electronic versions of textbooks even using crudely scanned versions to avoid the bookstores. As a proponent of a free market systems, I cannot help but applaud these entrepreneurs, but it is adding to the problem. With less students paying full prices for books, there has to be a reaction by the industry to raise prices to compensate and force university professors to adopt new versions. Again, I applaud professors for taking notice and taking steps to really take the students’ best interests in education to heart. Some professors (like a couple that I’m taking currently) have decided to use older editions of the texts because the information is essentially identical.

Eventually however, we will come to a crossroads, where the controllers of information will make the decision to either side with the people or make money charging us for every penny we have. (I’m alluding heavily to the issues with net neutrality here). The textbooks will either be phased out to a richer, more interactive medium that supports the education system, or there will be blood of executives in the streets as the students and professors stand together to quash the elitist, exclusivity that the publishers promote.

Stand Tall Comrades!!! Together we can combat this oppressive system!!

::

On a not altogether unrelated note, Amazon.com has made some great strides as far as buyback and student relations. You can get Amazon Prime (free two day shipping on Amazon items) with and .edu email account as a student and they have a pretty extensive buyback program that is easy to use. Not guaranteeing that all your books are going to be bought back or that it is the best price, but it is super convenient, reliable, and easy to use. That’s my commercial for today.

Amazon BuyBack

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2 thoughts on “The Textbook Scam

  1. Pingback: Textbooks Reimagined? « thangers

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