College Textbook Prices Soar

A trip to the bookstore is among a college student’s worst nightmares, spending hundreds of dollars on books that are required for classes but often go unused or barely acknowledged by the professors who assigned them.  Especially in recent years, the price of books has skyrocketed and left students facing sticker shock with each new semester.  As a college education has risen in cost so greatly in recent years, is this simply an extension of the over-inflated university market?

By the numbers

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has measured average inflation since 1977 to be 308%; and for textbooks?  A whopping 1,041% in the same time frame.  The College Board estimates that students currently spend an average of $1,200 annually on books and supplies, a strain on many students financially.  The main issue with this high cost is the fact that there are no substitutes for the specific books assigned by professors.  The main options a student has are to pay for the books in some way, or to forgo them and risk their grades suffering.

Publishing markets, and the problem of the 100th Edition

When looking for a reason to explain why books are so expensive, the first move is to look at the publishers who make the books.  Blaming the price of intellectual property, ideas, and the need to support the masters of subject fields, publishers look to dole out the costs elsewhere and say they are necessary.  The American Association of Publishers has heavily defended its right and necessity to charge the high the prices, and pushes blame onto the retailers who up-charge to make a profit.

But this cycle of blame doesn't reckon the grievances students have with textbook costs.  For one, the pushing out of new editions on a shortened time line, one source says, is what is keeping costs so high since resale is worthless every few years.

But why this book?

One other party deserves mention in the cost issues: the professors assigning the books.  Writing for Good, Liz Dwyer points out the convoluted process to getting a textbook assigned where the professor gives little regard to book prices and cares more about the very specific content of the book.  A notable example is a $400 chemistry textbook required for a high-level Chemistry class at the University of Michigan-Flint, picked for its very custom content that won over the professor.  Dwyer also pointed out the selection process by professors that can involve publishers wooing professors into securing unnecessary content, from textbook-study guide bundles to required CD content that can alone cost up to $100.

What about digitizing?

With technology today, paper textbook costs should be a moot point.  Many textbooks have been digitized by publishers and are available for download or through websites.  But issues with digitizing have arisen making many prefer the old-fashioned way.  One problem is the illegal copying and distribution of digital texts, leaving producers unfunded.  On the other hand, many students don’t want to pay for digital sources even at the much lower costs they can acquire legally.  Added to this is the fact that many students and likely even more professors simply don’t want to use digital versions that preclude highlighting and marking pages, and are generally not as well suited to studying.