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How Can We Curb the Soaring Cost of Textbooks?

Between 1998 and 2014 the price of new textbooks increased by 142 percent.

According to College Board estimates, in the current school year the average higher education student will shell out about $1,300 for books and supplies, regardless of school type. That cost is shocking. But even more alarming is the rapid rise in textbook prices over recent years. As illustrated in the above video, between 1998 and 2014 the cost of new textbooks increased by 142 percent, versus 44 percent for all other goods and just 1.6 percent for your average beach read. And the picture looks even worse if you go further back in time. According to government data, new textbook prices have been rising at a fairly steady 6 percent per year for ages, racking up a total increase of more than 800 percent since 1978 (around the era when prices began to seriously spike). Outpacing inflation, rising production costs, or any other factor, and contributing to what was in 2013 a $14 billion industry, it’s tempting to read this as a story of corporate greed preying upon our need for an education. But the real cause today for the meteoric rise in new book prices is a little more complex than greed alone.

The most common narrative for rising textbook costs credits them to a dysfunctional market. Whereas consumers usually have the direct ability to choose which books they buy, balancing content and affordability, publishers have traditionally marketed directly to professors setting the syllabi for their classes. Once selected, certain books—usually new or recent editions—become necessary to students’ success in the course. Recent legislation has worked to make staff and students more aware of the comparative costs of different books. But professors have told government researchers that even with more awareness of pricing issues, they still prioritize a textbook’s content over price. This hierarchy leaves a captive market to deal with prices dictated by producers who are part of corporate behemoths out for (so the narrative runs) reckless, self-serving profits.

Yet digging deeper, it appears that rising prices might not correlate to absurd profits. According to studies of student buying habits, overall spending on textbooks has remained fairly steady—or even fallen slightly—in recent years. And despite the absurdity of costs, publishers don’t see a whole lot of that income as profit. In fact, a number of publishers have been in financial trouble in recent years. Most notoriously, Cengage Learning had to file for bankruptcy in 2013.

Image by the University of Illinois Library via Flickr

This paradox of rising prices, stagnant spending, and questionable profits comes down to massive shifts in the way students have accessed textbooks over the past couple of decades. First, with the rise of large retail chains and, later, with the advent of the internet, it became much easier for students to find cheap used books or ones available for rent. And initiatives to create open textbooks and a push toward digital resources with lower price points have further deflated sales of new textbooks. The recognition that they can only make a profit in the first year after a new print edition is released—and the frailty of even those sales—has led publishers to jack up prices and crank out a needless quantity of new editions to secure a steady flow of income. This reactionary cycle has created a system that is far from sustainable.

There is likely a point of inflection beyond which people will just not shell out for a new book. And, to an extent, the price of new textbooks sets the price of used books and rentals as well (at least according to analyses by the U.S. Government Accountability Office). Ultimately this spiral of rising costs in a changing, broken market has to be addressed. Fortunately, a number of organizations are on the case—chief amongst them educational publishers who are desperately trying to replace books with digital services like dynamic subscriptions to texts.

Digital resources require less overhead to produce and can’t be resold (much to the joy of publishers). Ideally, they’re highly adaptable systems—updated as necessary and subscribed to or purchased on a regular basis—that could in theory enhance the ability to teach and learn. And many companies are now trying to market at least some of their new services directly to students, which may help to offset the problems of a professor-driven market. How this will reflect in course syllabi remains to be seen. But ideally, professors will find a way to accommodate open-source options, digital offerings, and other diverse materials in their classes in a way that both covers coursework and honors students’ need to make prudent financial decisions as education consumers—and our collective need to break the death spiral of educational publishing.

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