"The Real Cost of College Textbooks"
July 25th, 2010
The New York Times
July 25th, 2010
The New York Times
Why do new college textbooks cost so much? It's a perennial complaint, but with the growing concerns over student debt levels and the spiraling costs of higher education generally, students and their parents are not the only ones asking that question.
New federal regulations aimed at textbook pricing went into effect this month. Publishers will now "unbundle" college textbooks from accompanying materials like workbooks and CD's, allowing them to be bought separately. The publishers' representatives will also have to tell the college faculty member how much a textbook costs when they make a sales pitch -- the idea being that professors should be aware of what students will have to pay.
The book publishers supported the legislation. But a number of experts on the economics of textbook marketing said it will have little impact.
How onerous is the cost of textbooks, whether in print or digital, for students? Do colleges have a stake in keeping the prices high? What are the factors that determine what the publishers charge and what students end up paying?
[Charlotte Allen writes about higher education at Minding the Campus and is the author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”]
The $100 Biology Book
Why does your college evolutionary biology textbook cost more than $100 when you can pick up a copy of Richard Dawkins's "The Greatest Show on Earth" for around $20?
Here are some reasons:
1. Natural monopsomy: there's just one buyer, your professor, and he or she doesn't really care what the book costs because he or she gets a free teacher's copy anyway.
2. Many students don't care about price either because someone else or their parents are paying for the books.
3. There's a relatively small market for textbooks in contrast to a Dawkins bestseller. Costs can't be spread out via volume.
4. Textbooks are relatively expensive to produce, because of illustrations, charts, diagrams and maps.
Efforts have been made, sometimes by legislative fiat, to make textbooks cheaper, but many students and professors don't really like those cheaper compromises -- allowing the use of older editions or unbundling the educational software that accompanies many textbooks these days.
Students in today's digital age genuinely like the software, which is often essential; many colleges have subtly shifted the cost of educational aids to students by dismantling language and in some cases science labs in basic courses. Not surprisingly, a shift to e-textbooks probably represents a more palatable trend than trying to force cost-cutting of traditional textbooks.
[Robert Applebaum, a lawyer, is the creator of the Facebook group, Forgive Student Loan Debt to Stimulate the Economy, and the founder and executive director of ForgiveStudentLoanDebt.com.]
Little Incentive to Control Costs
As any college student can attest, there is an enormous hidden cost to obtaining a higher education, one that’s rarely discussed when it’s time to sign the promissory note: textbooks.
The costs of obtaining the required reading materials for each and every class a student takes can be staggering — up to 42 percent of the average yearly community college tuition — however, few stop to consider why.
Just as the schools have little incentive to keep their costs down, knowing the bills will be paid thanks to federal guarantees, the publishing industry has even less of an incentive to keep costs under control. Why? Because everyone — even the professors who often profit from royalties from textbook sales — except the student has a monetary incentive to keep things just the way they are.
The root causes of skyrocketing tuition and textbook costs are the same: the unregulated student loan market that preys on the very people for whom student loans were originally conceived to help.
As long as we continue to treat education as a commodity where those who can afford to play can do so with relative ease and those who can’t go into debt, these trends will get worse. And ultimately, higher education will only be available to the rich and to the financially ignorant.
Byron W. Brown
[Byron W. Brown is a professor of economics at Michigan State University.]
The Faux Value of E-Texts
A quick explanation of high textbook costs would be that publishers and authors use their monopoly power under the current copyright laws. That monopoly power is joined in today's market with a savvy use of some marketing tools (product bundling with e-texts, and the production of only marginally improved "new" editions) that limit choices while keeping prices high. These tools, at least so far, have not served the students and their instructors very well.
In textbook publishing the biggest threat to profits is the market in used copies. It's a fact of the world that a used copy of the current edition of a popular microeconomics text is a very good, if not perfect, substitute for a new copy of the book. But every dollar exchanged in the market for used texts is a dollar that is not reaching the pockets of the publishing companies, or their authors.
I teach (or supervise others who teach) large classes of introductory microeconomics. Last semester, a new paper copy of the prescribed textbook sold in local bookstores for $164.35. The local custom in my college town is for the bookstore to repurchase from students their used copies for half the new price, and then turn around and resell to the next generation of students for three-quarters of the "new" price (a markup of 50 percent). So the net cost to a student who bought a new copy, and resold at term's end, would be $82.18. By buying used, and then reselling, a student can drive that cost down to $41.10.
Because an e-text has no resale value, it is a near perfect solution to the publishers' marketing problem. And their pricing of the e-text, at $79.49, approximately twice the students' net price in the used market, assures that the money pipeline will continue to flow.
Yet the e-text, by my students' reckoning, provides even less convenience and less learning value than a used paper copy. E-texts don't make textbooks cheaper, as the publishers contend, but accomplish exactly the opposite.
[Bruce Hildebrand is executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers.]
A Small Expense, Overall
The new federal guidelines are fair, and publishers supported the bill that was signed into law. Transparency is good and getting information into the hands of students early will enable them to shop wisely for their course materials.
For example, students can use the ISBN numbers of new textbooks and supplements to go to publishers’ Web sites to get discounts, low-cost editions, e-textbooks, books online by the chapter, custom textbooks and more. Also, they can rent e-books at CourseSmart.com, a publisher-created site that offers discounts of 50 to 60 percent.
It’s difficult to determine what impact the bill will have on debt. The spectrum of options provided by publishers is enabling students to determine how much they pay for their course materials. Still, the debate over textbook prices can be highly charged and is frequently based on outdated data.
The fact is textbooks are one of the smallest expenses for students, even those attending public two-year commuter colleges, according to The College Board’s 2009 report. Actual average student spending on textbooks has been flat or declining since spring ’06, according to Student Monitor, the research group.
The Association of American Publishers and its members have developed a program named Cost Effective Solutions for Student Success to educate educators and policymakers on ways to further lower students’ spending, and to improve student success rates while reducing colleges’ cost per pupil for instruction.
Development of open source materials is in its early stages and how it evolves is still to be decided. Schools, faculty and students demand the highest quality materials and expect the kinds of extensive training and technical support provided by publishers.
We suggest the focus should be on immediately getting publishers’ high-quality, low-cost materials into the hands of students. These tested and proven course materials are already being used successfully by millions of students on virtually every campus in the U.S., and abroad.
[Anya Kamenetz, a staff writer at Fast Company magazine, is the author of "DIY U."]
Get Rid of Print and Go Digital
The high cost of textbooks isn't a technological problem to be solved by digital distribution; it's a business model problem. With students as a captive market, textbooks are the last big cash cow for conventional publishers. It's no coincidence that Pearson, the largest educational publisher, is the largest English language publisher, period.
But textbooks, with or without the bundled DVDs, are what Judy Baker, of the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources, calls "The Hummer of higher education."
Why should we be content with static, rapidly outdated, heavy print textbooks that can cost community college students as much as their tuition, when professors and students can work together to create dynamic, rich-media learning environments instead using free and open source software tools?
You can find examples at Wikieducator or UMW Blogs.
Teaching without textbooks means teaching students to think critically, evaluate various sources of information, and draw their own conclusions -- critical 21st century liberal arts skills. Good professors could put together stellar college courses from the material on Wikipedia and YouTube, but they don't have to. Learners can draw on a growing trove of materials like TED Talks, the Internet Archive, Europeana, and of course those created expressly for education at the Open Courseware Consortium or the Open Learning Initiative. These are all high quality, of known provenance, and did I mention free?
Some professors are rushing to teach without textbooks, while others are less eager or simply like the convenience of a basic written guide to a topic. Luckily, there is a great transitional model: Flatworld Knowledge. Flatworld Knowledge commissions expert authors to produce textbooks that are free to read online and available in a variety of formats for costs that average just $18 per student per semester, 82 percent cheaper than traditional textbooks.
Most important, because they're Creative Commons-licensed, educators and potentially students can customize the texts for each class in which they're adopted--cutting, adding, or remixing material to use only what they need. Goodbye, Hummer -- hello, hybrid Zipcar.
James V. Koch
[James V. Koch is professor of economics and president emeritus at Old Dominion University.]
Like the Pharmaceutical Market
The textbook market is like the pharmaceutical market: the people who have the most influence over what is purchased (doctors and professors) don’t have to pay for their choices. Students do.
Further, several studies indicate that most professors don’t even know the cost of the textbooks they recommend, or that this is a minor factor in their choices. This makes the demand for textbooks “price inelastic” -- student buyers are insensitive to price increases.
Add to this the complicity of universities in the problem. Typically, the more students spend on textbooks, the more universities earn from their bookstore contracts. Little wonder most universities don’t like on-line textbook suppliers or rental textbook systems.
Finally, textbook publishers love to “bundle” expensive textbook packages (book, workbook, CD, etc.) and with the help of professors, force students to purchase more than they would otherwise. If that doesn’t work, they’ll bring out a new addition and with the help of bookstores, render obsolete the old copies.
[Eric Weil is managing partner of Student Monitor, which provides market research services focused exclusively on American college students.]
How Students Really Buy Books
The following information may help place the discussion over the cost of textbooks in context. Our findings reveal:
-- On an annual basis, college students spend 40 percent more for their cellular telephone service than for textbooks.
-- 56 percent of students are more likely to purchase the bundled version of a textbook “if the professor explains why the extra materials are important.”
-- Fewer than one in four students report: “My experience with a bundled textbook discouraged me from buying another bundled textbook next semester.”
-- On average, students purchase 78 percent of their required textbooks.
-- During the spring 2010 semester, student spending for textbooks declined 13 percent compared with the prior year for four reasons.
1. Students are buying their textbooks from less expensive sources (30 percent of textbooks are purchased online).
2. The share of spending for used, printed textbooks rather than new, printed books is increasing (44 percent of spending for printed textbooks was spent for purchasing used, printed textbooks).
3. Students are purchasing eTextbooks as an alternative to buying or renting printed textbooks.
4. Students are renting textbooks instead of buying them.
Eighty percent of four-year students graduate with student loan debt averaging $36,501. Clearly, students and their parents would be better served if those legislators concerned with the cost of textbooks were those legislators reconsidering the ongoing cuts in aid to higher education both at the federal and state level.