Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

The national "textbook rebellion" launched last week. So why is your hardback calculus book $200?

Last week the nonprofit Student Public Interest Research Groups launched their national "Textbook Rebellion" on the University of Maryland's College Park campus, urging students and college faculty to rally against high textbook prices. A recent Student PIRGs survey shows that seven out of 10 students have skipped buying textbooks because of their cost. But how much are students really spending and why are books so pricey?

Data from Student Monitor, a market-research firm that’s captured information on college students for the past 24 years, shows that in spring 2011, students actually purchased 77 percent of required textbooks. But Eric Weil, managing partner at Student Monitor, says that students have never purchased all of their textbooks. “Word always gets around campus that a professor is only using one chapter, so they just share a book with a friend, copy that one chapter or skip buying it,” he says.

Weil also points out that student spending on textbooks has been decreasing since 2006 because of the rise of electronic books, rentals, and the used book market. He says the claim made by Student PIRGs—that students spend over $1,000 annually on books—comes from data from the College Board that combines what students spend on both books and supplies. Those "supplies" could be anything, even an iPad.

According to Student Monitor's data, during the 2010-11 school year, students spent an average of $534 on books, down from $644 in 2005-2006. “Students spend more on their cell phones in a semester than textbooks,” says Weil.

Bruce Hildebrand, the executive director for higher education at the American Association of Publishers, a trade association of book publishers, says that even back in 1939, students protested when textbooks reached the exorbitant price of $3. Generations later, the most expensive textbook format is still a traditional hardback. “If the price of a book in the campus bookstore is $100, the publisher sold it to them for $75,” says Hildebrand.

Some of that $75 list price comes from writing and production costs—paying all the authors, editors, and designers. Even if a book is electronic, those costs don’t disappear, which is why digital textbooks aren't free. The other factor is the used textbook market. Once a textbook enters it, there’s no revenue for the author or publisher.

“For every book they sell, they’re losing future sales,” says Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for Student PIRGs. She acknowledges it's problematic for publishers, “but book prices are so high that students don’t have any choice but to sell them back so they have money for the next semester’s books.”

Allen argues that the overall publishing model is inefficient. “Their business model is the same as when Gutenberg invented the printing press.” She says publishers don’t do more to lower costs because they’re not directly accountable to students. They “wine and dine” faculty because if they “can convince a professor to assign a book, they’re guaranteed sales.”

According to Hildebrand, though, college faculty aren't so easily swayed. Professors are demanding more custom books that emphasize the application of concepts and meet the specific academic needs of their students. That's why even though calculus hasn't changed, publishers still produce updated editions. Because the market is so competitive, Hildebrand says professors have the power to make publishers compete for bids so they can get the lowest-priced book for their students.

As more professors choose electronic books, student will pay less. “You can buy an e-textbook and the average price is down 60 percent. You can buy per chapter now,” Hildebrand adds, “and those start at $1.99.”

However, the growth of the e-textbook industry worries Allen. Currently, students can buy a book, share it with a friend, rent it or check out a copy from the reserve library. “Imagine a world where a student uses e-books and they get an access code that comes with a license that prevents them from sharing and selling it,” she says. In the short term, prices would be lower, but Allen warns that over the long run, because of the lack of choice, “publishers will have absolute control over students. The prices will absolutely skyrocket.”

Allen advocates an open-source textbook model, like that of Flat World Knowledge. She says Flat World uses the same peer review and editorial process as traditional publishers, but they make the books available to educators for free as long as they give attribution to the author, publisher and don't try to sell copies. If a student wants a printed or audio version, they pay about $30. But the variety of textbooks available on Flat World's site is still pretty limited. There are only two math books, for example, one for elementary and one for intermediate algebra.

Ultimately what frustrates Weil about the debate over the cost of textbooks is that government officials complain in public about the issue, but then they'll turn around and vote for or authorize cuts to higher education.“At the end of the day,” he says, “how disingenuous are these folks when they say they’re concerned about students and debt?”

While Student PIRGs are right—textbook prices do need to be reasonable—the amount of money students spend on them is chump change compared to the total student debt they're racking up. Whether that debt inspires similar protests is anybody's guess.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Plutor

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