As fall semester begins and students return to campus, I can’t help but reflect on the cost of textbooks, and challenge myself to think about how this affects my students and me.

Data from the Conference Board of Mathematical Sciences (CBMS) show that in Fall 2005, there were over 600,000 students enrolled in calculus on university campuses in the United States (http://bit.ly/SFeU8h). This appears to be an increase of about 100,000 students from an estimate made in 1994 (http://bit.ly/SFegrp).

That’s a lot of calculus students.

If there are 600,000 again this fall, I am teaching 0.01% of those: 60 students in 2 sections of 30 students in calculus II. Because my ongoing project only has the text for differential calculus complete so far, I will be using what my colleagues and I have traditionally used for the past decade or so: the text by Hughes-Hallett et al that is often termed “the Harvard Calculus.” Which is a really good text: well-written, intuitive, and with interesting problems. But I just looked at my university bookstore’s web page. New, the text is $189.95. Used, $99.95. Students can buy a solutions manual for $56.95 (new) or $34.95 (used). Holy freaking cow.

I just checked on Amazon, where the same text sells new for $134, and used from $65. As an aside, I wonder how many students actually pay the $50 markup over Amazon. Crazy. I imagine university bookstores are going to go the way of for-profit publishers.

I’m sure that by now my reader is thinking about the total expenditure by my 60 calculus students this fall, or perhaps by the roughly 600 calculus students at my university, or even by the 600,000 taking it nationally. For round numbers, say that an average student spends $100 on a calculus text: the national college calculus cohort thus spends 60 million dollars. As I said above: holy cow.

Now, the students I teach this fall will, I believe, each get $100 in value from their text. (Also notable: most of my students took calculus I at GVSU, and each will have already purchased the text for that course.) For nearly every class meeting, they will have a reading assignment to complete, and they will be consistently urged (required!) to read and study the text. And, of course, there will be exercises; but, somewhat ironically, I will likely not assign any exercises from the text. Instead, I’ll be using WeBWorK and its National Problem Library, in which nearly all of the Harvard text’s exercises are available. So, because my department now has a WeBWorK server, I could actually assign my students exercises even if they didn’t have a text.

In closing, some questions: how often have we instructors of mathematics used calculus textbooks primarily as a source of exercises? And if so, is that worth $100? Even as a well-used resource, is such a text really worth $100? As we require our students to undertake these expenses, it behooves each of us to think carefully about how and how well we use these resources to impact our students’ learning. In light of the exciting developments in free and open texts, as well as the ease of self-publishing, I’m inclined to think that the $100 expense is not nearly as worthwhile as it used to be. Maybe that figure should be at most $10 or $20.

Coming up in my next post: a brief survey of existing free (or nearly free) calculus texts that follows up on a couple mentioned in Open Textbooks.

“How often have we instructors of mathematics used calculus textbooks primarily as a source of exercises? And if so, is that worth $100? Even as a well-used resource, is such a text really worth $100?”

I’d say the answers — generally speaking — are “a lot”, “no”, and “no”. For me, the question has become, what constitutes value in a textbook in the first place? Or more to the point, what would it take for a textbook to be worth $100?

Does value consist in the problem sets? If so, most textbooks have a lot of work to do, because many of their problems are re-hashed from at least 1-2 generations of previous textbooks (it wouldn’t even shock me to find that a lot of problems are plagiarized) or are so simplistic that they could have been created by the students in the course. In fact, there might be more pedagogical value in having students create the problems for the textbook than there is in having them solve those problems. And as you say, now you can get entirely libraries of automatically-graded exercises for free, so the law of supply and demand no longer applies to the value of problem sets.

[…] In the year since starting this blog, I’ve posted frequently about the rising costs of college texts, including here, here, and here. […]