College textbooks cost too much

The outrageous prices of printed textbooks should be pushing us to move toward an open-access model.
February 13, 2012

Each semester I buy textbooks for the courses I’m taking, and each semester I’m amazed at the cost of those textbooks. This should come as a surprise to no one: Textbooks cost too much. I would like to suggest they’ve cost too much since textbooks were first required in college courses, but I don’t know if that would be necessarily true.

According to a report released in 2005 by the U.S. General Accounting Office, textbook costs rose an astonishingly 186 percent between 1986 and 2004. This is, by now, an old statistic, so I can only imagine how much the percentage increase is from 2004 to 2012. Suffice it to say, students purchase new and expensive textbooks every semester, only to resell them to bookstores at a loss.

Frustratingly, some small textbooks seem to often cost exorbitant amounts of money, while larger textbooks are much cheaper. Let’s take one text as an example: “Ovid: Blackwell Introductions to the Classical World” by Katharina Volk. This is a 157-page long textbook, and it’s written for a general undergraduate audience. However, this textbook is $104.95. For a 157-page book to cost that much is mind-boggling. Perhaps if this book were written for a specialist audience, then I suppose I could see it costing that much. But this is a textbook written for someone who may have never read Ovid and is only reading Ovid for a small part of a course that isn’t in his or her major degree field. I find this unacceptable.

It is a further travesty knowing that when a student returns to the bookstore at the end of the semester to resell this book, they probably will only get back 50 to 60 percent of its original cost. So, for a 15-week course, a student will likely lose 40 to 50 percent of the value of their new textbook. If someone lost 50 percent of their investment in a stock over 15 weeks, they probably would dump the stock and not invest in it anymore.

Placing the Ovid textbook against another longer textbook can help us understand perspective. Let’s take “Workplace Communications: The Basics” by George Searles for example. This is a 312-page long textbook and it’s written for a general, nonwriter audience. It is intended for an audience who has little experience writing and wants to understand the genres of business communication. This textbook is $70.80. This textbook is longer, contains more information and is a practical textbook, yet it costs about 30 percent less than the Ovid textbook. How is this possible? How is it possible that a textbook roughly double the size of the Ovid textbook can cost less?

This is nothing short of a travesty and rip-off placed at the feet of college students everywhere. I’m not suggesting that Ovid isn’t important for college students to read. I read Ovid as an undergraduate, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, my textbook didn’t cost $104.95, and it is quite possible that I would have enjoyed Ovid less knowing that I had to pay over $100 just to be introduced to him.

I know the cost of textbooks isn’t lost on all instructors. I’ve had professors who go out of their way to locate cheaper copies of textbooks or required books, and I appreciate that consideration immensely. As an instructor myself, I am caught in a position many graduate instructors, teaching assistants and others find themselves in. On one side, I am a student and have to buy required books for classes I am taking, and on the other side, I am a teacher who may have to require a textbook in the classes I’m teaching.

Often, I find my two perspectives battling for primacy because I love books. I like having a bound copy of some work in my hand. I also like reading texts online if I can get them too. So, I usually become extra sensitive to the cost of textbooks I require in the classes I teach, and I generally only assign textbooks I think are excellent ones worth keeping after the class is over. I want my students to use textbooks that they may actually pick up again for something, and, fortunately,  textbooks on writing usually fit the bill.

The power of textbook publishers is immense, and I’m afraid they may have a stranglehold on universities. In order to change, we need to begin to realize that knowledge is not always something that needs to be printed and sold. Indeed, there are many of Ovid’s works available online, and there are many online guides for business communication. However, there just isn’t enough open-access online work for instructors to pull from yet. There is some available, but what will it take for instructors and students to start demanding and using freely available open-access volumes of textbooks? It will require a redefinition of knowledge and authority.

Instructors stick with textbooks because they have a semblance of authority. It’s an authority that governs the entire university structure. Textbooks would quickly fall out of the norm if there weren’t educational institutions that needed them. Fortunately, textbooks only have as much authority as we grant them. So, perhaps it’s time we start granting the same authority to free open-access editions and ease the cost burden placed on students.

College is expensive enough without having to use money for outrageously expensive textbooks. That money could be spent on something more useful, like food, travel and other things necessary to survive in college. Students must demand change, and instructors must be willing to enact change.

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