The Demise of the $200 Textbook


“The entrepreneurial process is not just about new companies, capital, and jobs. It’s also about fostering an ingenious human spirit and improving humankind.”

—The late Dr. Jeffry Timmons,” The Johnny Appleseed of Entrepreneurship Education,” Professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College, author and early advisor to Flat World Knowledge.

With the approach of the fall semester, the topic of the spiraling cost of higher education, textbooks, and related course materials will again be amplified by the media, policy-makers, administrators, educators, students, and families.

And it's no wonder. A single new college textbook may exceed $200. Prices over the last several years have been rising at more than two times the rate of inflation. According to the College Board, last year students at four-year public colleges spent an average of $1,122 on textbooks and supplies.

The skyrocketing cost of college textbooks threatens the mission of most public institutions: namely, to provide access to high-quality, affordable education. It also contributes to rising college drop-out rates when global competitiveness has never been more paramount. In a Public Agenda research report for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them, 60 percent of students surveyed said the cost of textbooks and other fees contributed to their decision not to continue with their college education.

The pain of textbook costs is not evenly distributed. Those at the bottom of the economic pyramid are of course impacted the most. The U.S. Department of Education estimates that for a student at a two-year public institution, textbooks and supplies as a percentage of tuition and fees is a shocking 72 percent; 26 percent for a student attending a four-year public institution.

Cash-strapped, tech-savvy students who yearn to be treated like consumers are left with few alternatives. In an effort to survive financially, they turn to used books, rentals, online piracy sites, and a robust gray market of low-cost international editions, all of which hurt authors and bookstores. With fewer sales of new books, the textbook publishing industry responds by escalating prices and revising editions faster to force students to buy new books. Instructors also share the pain by having to revise course plans more often.

Clearly, this presents an opportunity to bridge the value gap and better serve students, faculty, authors, the supply chain, and academic institutions. And for educational entrepreneurs, it’s a problem ripe for innovation and risk-taking.

In 2007, I left a major player in the college textbook industry to create a disruptive new publishing force. Our vision was to tear down the walls around content that were causing so many problems for students, instructors, institutions, and authors. We named our new company Flat World Knowledge.

Our philosophy and Flat World’s disruptive business model is based on the idea of abundance, not scarcity. Abundance makes information and knowledge available to whoever wants it. Scarcity restricts access by charging a high price.

We sign top scholars to write innovative textbooks and use an industry-tested product development model to ensure high-quality. We then turn the traditional publishing model on its head. Flat World textbooks are published under an open license, which anyone worldwide can access free online, with no restrictions. Educators have the freedom to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute a Flat World book they adopt—the four Rs of open—at no cost so long as they attribute the author and publisher and don’t engage in commercial activity. We generate revenue around our free, web-hosted textbooks by selling affordable formats, such as print-on-demand, audio, and handheld reader versions for about $30.

Our new publishing venture coincides with the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement which is gaining momentum since emerging over a decade ago. Open content, pioneered by MIT’s OpenCourseWare project, among others, takes advantage of the internet by freely sharing knowledge and reusing educational content.

To solve the textbook affordability crisis and remove barriers to student success, we need all hands on deck: educators and institutions, students and families, non-profit organizations and commercial businesses.

Federal and state governments can also be a catalyst to jump start educational innovation by seeding a competitive environment for businesses, organizations, and individuals to take risks and experiment. New ideas produce new companies and entities that create jobs and fuel economic growth.

Increasing access for all to higher education, textbooks and other learning materials is essential to building a healthy and sustainable knowledge-based economy. By opening up access, we unlock human capital and technical innovation in ways we can’t yet imagine.

Jeff Shelstad is the co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Flat World Knowledge, the first publisher of commercial, openly-licensed college textbooks.

Julian Meehan

Young leaders from around the world are gathering at the United Nations Headquarters in New York Saturday to address arguably the most urgent issue of our time. The Youth Climate Summit comes on the heels of an international strike spearheaded by Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist from Sweden, who arrived in New York via emissions-free sailboat earlier this month.

Translated from Swedish, "berg" means "mountain," so it may feel fated that a young woman with Viking blood in her veins and summit in her name would be at the helm. But let's go out on a limb and presume Thunberg, in keeping with most activists, would chafe at the notion of pre-ordained "destiny," and rightly so. Destiny is passive — it happens to you. It's also egomaniacal. Change, on the other hand, is active; you have to fight. And it is humble. "We need to get angry and understand what is at stake," Thunberg declared. "And then we need to transform that anger into action."

This new generation of activists' most pernicious enemy is denial. The people in charge — complacent politicians and corporation heads who grossly benefit from maintaining the status quo — are buffered from real-life consequences of climate change. But millions of people don't share that privilege. For them, climate change isn't an abstract concept, but a daily state of emergency, whether it comes in the form of "prolonged drought in sub-Saharan Africa…devastating tropical storms sweeping across Southeast Asia, the Caribbean and the Pacific…[or] heatwaves and wildfires," as Amnesty International reportsare all too real problems people are facing on a regular basis.

RELATED: Greta Thunberg urges people to turn to nature to combat climate change

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet

Millions of people in over 150 countries across the globe marched for lawmakers and corporations to take action to help stop climate change on Friday, September 20.

The Climate Strikes were organized by children around the world as an extension of the of the "Fridays for Future" campaign. Students have been walking out of classrooms on Fridays to speak out about political inaction surrounding the climate crisis.

"We need to act right now to stop burning fossil fuels and ensure a rapid energy revolution with equity, reparations and climate justice at its heart," organizers say.

There's no doubt the visual images from the marches send a powerful message to those on the ground but especially those watching from around the world. GOOD's own Gabriel Reilich was on the scene for the largest of the Climate Strikes. Here are 18 of the best signs from the Climate Strike march in New York City.

Keep Reading Show less

September 20th marks the beginning of a pivotal push for the future of our planet. The Global Climate Strike will set the stage for the United Nations Climate Action Summit, where more than 60 nations are expected to build upon their commitment to 2015's Paris Agreement for combating climate change.

Millions of people are expected to take part in an estimated 4,000 events across 130 countries.

Keep Reading Show less
The Planet
via Apple

When the iPhone 11 debuted on September 10, it was met with less enthusiasm than the usual iPhone release. A lot of techies are holding off purchasing the latest gadget until Apple releases a phone with 5G technology.

Major US phone carriers have yet to build out the infrastructure necessary to provide a consistent 5G experience, so Apple didn't feel it necessary to integrate the technology into its latest iPhone.

A dramatic new feature on the iPhone 11 Pro is its three camera lenses. The three lenses give users the the original wide, plus ultrawide and telephoto options.

Keep Reading Show less
via I love butter / Flickr

We often dismiss our dreams as nonsensical dispatches from the mind while we're deep asleep. But recent research proves that our dreams can definitely affect our waking lives.

People often dream about their significant others and studies show it actually affects how we behave towads them the next day.

"A lot of people don't pay attention to their dreams and are unaware of the impact they have on their state of mind," said Dylan Selterman, psychology lecturer at the University of Maryland, says according to The Huffington Post. "Now we have evidence that there is this association."

Keep Reading Show less