A recent US News and World Report article focuses on the high rate at which textbook costs have been rising and explains how the costs are divided among bookstores and textbook companies.
While overall inflation is currently low, not so for textbooks: “According to the Labor Department, textbook prices as of July were 8.1 percent higher than in July 2011, while prices for all goods only grew by 1.4 percent overall.” This contrast is striking, particularly in light of longstanding trends which show an already high rate of text inflation: “A 2005 Government Accountability Office report showed that college textbook prices grew at twice the rate of inflation from 1986 to 2004.”
The article provides other interesting points: college bookstores only reap about 20% of the cost of the text, most of which goes toward human and facility costs. More than 75% of the cost accrues to the publisher. There are some crazy large dollar figures cited, too.
On page 2, the conversation shifts a bit to e-books and related technologies. There, a person from the National Association of College Stores makes the assertion that “the cost of bringing textbooks into the digital age may even push costs higher.” To that, I basically say: “baloney.” These technologies should make nearly all of these expenses less, largely because of all the wonderful free resources out there. Consider Geogebra and WeBWorK as two prominent examples, much less LaTeX itself.
From my perspective, textbook companies are furiously developing software add-ons that are tied to books in an effort to increase their business: they create products that are tied directly to texts, and then charge premium fees to students for this software, in addition to the text itself. Personally, I think it would be crazy to require students to purchase the software Geometer’s Sketchpad ($69.95) when they can use Geogebra for free. On a similar note, I think we’re nearing a point where WeBAssign ($19.95 per student per course) is a far less appealing option than WeBWorK (free, in the right circumstances, though there’s some institutional cost if you run your own WeBWorK server).
And the point about bringing textbooks into the digital age pushing costs higher is even crazier in light of the point that many have already made: it is incredibly easy and inexpensive (other than human time and effort) to self-publish a text. Instead, we can and must make these costs go down. It’s no longer tenable to ask the average college student to spend $1168 a year on textbooks.