By Clay Parlette
Ah, the sweet time of year is upon us when the cicadas whisper in the trees, the weather begins to cool, football stadiums are lit up, and the obscene prices of textbooks scream in our faces. It’s a problem that’s been grumbled about for years and years now. Some will shrug their shoulders as they enter mom and dad’s credit card on Chegg’s payment page. Others will wait in the screamingly long snake of a line outside the bookstore ready to hand over their hard-earned bundle of Benjamin Franklins. Whether these bound stacks of words and pictures are being paid for by scholarships, loans, family assistance, or our very own paychecks, college students everywhere are united in agreement that the price of these things is unabashedly steep.
With some additional research on the issue, you may discover three universal truths about the textbook industry in general: 1) The demand for textbooks is widely viewed as inelastic (unlikely to change based on price); 2) Textbook sales representatives market books by “quality” (whatever that is determined to be) while generally avoiding price discussions with instructors; and 3) New editions of textbooks are how publishers can ensure consistent sales (and screw up the used book market). What’s shocking is, according to The National Survey of Student Engagement Report (2012), “one fourth of first-year students and one third of seniors frequently did not purchase required materials because of cost.”1 Don’t get me wrong, there are multiple ways to obtain books to save some money (ie: renting, buying used, and sharing), but what a crappy reality it is that many of the world’s future leaders have already made the decision to push through the semester without the book.
Studies broadly show positive correlations between textbook use and course performance. This essentially means that some of us students must choose between financial woes and good academic performance. Just like inelasticity in pricing may be detrimental to renters or farmers, textbook inelasticity is particularly severe for financially disadvantaged students. What’s worse is that not all programs may accommodate the rent, used, or share option for a multitude of reasons. But even with that, isn’t it objectionable that this is even an issue for those attempting to better themselves and the world they live in?
For something as important as education, it is shameful that it is not an option for all students to purchase or obtain a new textbook to accompany their learning experience. I could stand on the roof and shout about this until I die, but the fact is, the problem is unlikely to go away anytime soon. One important thing that can soothe the sting would be for course instructors to take up the cause for their students. Doing simple things like asking sales reps about pricing, avoiding the use of ridiculously priced extra products like Connect, informing their classes early about textbook information (isbn, required or not, all of that jazz), allowing for the use of older editions, and avoiding the use of clipped, unbound, and special versions of a book are all ways that will relieve students (if even just a little) of book expenses.
On the homepage of boundless.com it reads, “Universal Access to Quality Education is a Right.” I couldn’t agree more, along with my friends William and Flora Hewlett, Laura and John Arnold, Bill and Melinda Gates, and many more. This organization was founded to provide free open access to textbooks and teaching products for students and instructors under the belief stated above. Wouldn’t it be every college student’s dream come true if they discovered that their instructor adopted a book available for no charge from such an organization?
While the publishing companies continue to do everything they can to squeeze every penny out of students whether it be creating a new edition every two years or simply charging over 1000 percent more than they should (I’m serious. Look it up. Textbook prices have increased over 1000 percent since the late 70s.), I only ask that instructors try to make some effort to feel our pain and maybe give us a hand in making class more affordable. In the meantime, thousands of us will probably continue to flip burgers, sell our precious plasma, and raid the wishing well so that that next book may be ours if the price is right.