Your (my!) annual vent about textbook costs

College students everywhere are heading to their campus bookstores’ websites to see what their textbooks are going to set them back.  Here are three anecdotes that have gotten me rankled just within the last week or so.

– One of my son’s closest friends is studying nursing at a private university in the upper midwest that has annual tuition of about $34,000 per year.  At dinner the other night, she shared with us that her fall textbook bill was just over $1000 for 5 courses, plus an additional $300 in supplies (nursing scrubs, etc).  So that’s $1300 beyond her already considerable tuition expenses for the term.

– One of my colleagues has a daughter starting this fall at another private university in the midwest, one with similar tuition of around $35,000 annually.  She, too, is studying nursing.  For an introductory chemistry course, the combined bill for textbook and lab manual was $550.  $550!!  An internally customized calculus textbook that couldn’t be purchased anywhere else was over $200.  Total textbook bill for fall semester: nearly $1000.

Keep in mind, the projected average that most schools advertise for books for an entire year is typically around $1100-1200.  Which, of course, is already ridiculously high.  But the two examples above have essentially forced the students to meet the annual average cost in a single semester.

– This final anecdote was relayed to me secondhand.  A prominent author in the mathematical sciences has a popular, longstanding book for an upper-level course in his discipline’s major.  The book is now in its 7th or 8th edition.  When the newest edition came out, the author learned that the text — which has changed little from the last edition to the latest — was retailing for over $200.  The author called the publisher and demanded the price be lowered substantially.  They cut it almost in half.

If publishers can cut the price of a textbook in half, it’s pretty evident what their profit margin is like.

(While we’re here, James Stewart’s 4th edition single variable calculus concepts and context book is still rolling off the Amazon shelves for $218 new, even though the last update to the book was almost 5 years ago.  At least with the longer time period between new editions, there are much more reasonably priced used versions of the text.  The Harvard Calculus text, now in its recently updated fifth edition, is much more reasonably priced at $110 new (softcover).  In light of the chemistry example, $100 for a calculus text seems almost like a good deal, especially when it can be used for two semesters.)

For the first two examples above, I urged my friend and my son’s friend to each write a polite but direct letter to the following three people at their respective universities:  (1) the Provost, (2) the person in charge of enrollment management/retention (likely a vice president or vice provost), and (3) the Director of Admissions.  Those three people understand (a) how fierce the competition is these days to recruit students, (b) how challenging keeping students at one’s university can be, and (c) the simple fact that cost matters.  I think that too often we faculty can be oblivious to all three of those issues.  Personally, I just can’t see a single circumstance in which it is reasonable to pay $550 in textbook fees for an introductory chemistry class, or $1000 in a single semester for books.  Chief executives at universities have to be made aware of this and to enact practices and policies that keep these costs down for students and families.

Count me with Robert Talbert:  it’s time for universities everywhere to “decouple [themselves] from publishing companies.”  We should not be making corporations rich on the backs of our students, especially when nearly every one of these texts is written by someone who is a college professor themselves.  And we absolutely should not be using textbooks as a way to push down our publicly-stated cost of attendance, only to make it up with hidden profits through internally produced, specialized texts with inflated pricetags.



One comment

  1. […] annual complaints about textbook costs are at least getting […]

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