The Irascible ProfessorSM

Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro
"Inflation is the one form of taxation that can be imposed without legislation."...  ... Milton Friedman.

Commentary of the Day - March 18, 2005:  Who's to Blame for the High Cost of Textbooks.  Guest commentary by James Beach.

My first time in a college bookstore was my first day on campus in the fall of 2004.  I walked into the bookstore expecting to buy my books and move on with my life.  When I saw the long line I was a bit discouraged, but I remained calm.  Taking in the unfamiliar surroundings, I made my way to the back of the store where I noticed that everyone seemed to be in a frenzy.  Students with bulging eyes, flushed faces, and sweaty hands pushed through the crammed store in order to grab the "best" books.

When I got to the front of the line I found five clerks ready to take my last dime.  "Welcome to the University of Richmond," one said with a huge smile as I forked over $629.87 to pay for the books I needed for my first semester.
Prompted by this experience, I started poking around on the Internet to find out if there was much interest in textbook prices.  Within no time, I was awash in a plethora of facts and opinions about textbook pricing.  Apparently tension between book publishers, college bookstores, and students has been increasing for some time over the issue of textbook prices.  The issue has been receiving even more scrutiny because of the recent dramatic inflation in the costs of higher education.

Some additional research at the bookstore helped me to understand some of the reasons for the rapid rise in textbook priced.  The publishers often produce and instructors often assign editions that come bundled with workbooks, study guides, and CD-ROMs, which sometimes are of questionable value to the student.  I was not exactly thrilled this semester when I had to buy such a package for $80 when I could have purchased a used copy of the text alone for $35.  I quickly figured out that these "special" editions and supplements often prevent students from buying used textbooks, and force them to pay double or even triple the price of the used book.  This allows publishers to markup book prices more than the standard 20-25 per cent, and these extra costs have to be passed along by the bookstores in order for them to stay in business.  For example an introductory college physics book, with a few software extras, and perhaps a study guide and student version of the solutions manual might cost 50% more than the book alone.  How do the publishers justify all of these "add-ons" that drive up prices?

After reviewing my notes and gathering my thoughts I called the senior publisher's representative with the textbook firm Allyn and Bacon-Longman.  My goal was to understand the basic concepts behind textbook pricing; and, I wanted to get the publisher's side of the story.  As I expected, she offered many reasons for the rising costs of books.  Fixed costs were the number one reason for staggering book prices.  Permissions and copyrights to reproduce a single image or short story can cost as much as $58,000 dollars.  If a book contains several hundred images, these costs can amount to millions of dollars.  The amount of time and effort spent creating one textbook also contributes to high costs.  For example, the Sixth Edition of Biology by Neil Campbell and Jane Reece required over 9000 hours of work by 210 biologists to review the content for errors.  The drafting and editing stages alone took a total of 15,780 hours to complete.  As far as material resources, just one of the seven total printings took 517,708 pounds of paper and 5,330 pounds of ink; the press ran for a total of 151 hours.

What does this prove?  The production of a textbook is very costly and labor intensive.  Does this justify the high costs?  I would still say only partially at best.  The bundled CD-ROMs, workbooks, and study guides still inflate the prices.

 The senior publisher's representative at Allyn and Bacon also mentioned a lesser known problem -- the used book market.  I never thought of its implications, yet they are huge.  Firms around the world simply buy used books and resell them to college students at about one-half the price of a new book.  That's like music to any college student's ears, right?  The problem lies in the fact that these firms are robbing potential profits from the book publishers and writers.  The publisher and authors do not earn any money from the sale of used books.  In order to compensate for lower profits, firms must raise book prices to stay in business; and, they must produce new editions of standard texts at a rapid rate to suppress the used book market.

Does that mean that students should never purchase used books?   No, I'm not saying that.  Students should just be aware of both sides of the issue.  They should know the implications of buying used books as well as the alternatives.  Buying online, for example, is a viable alternative, but it also has downfalls such as high shipping fees and late delivery.

 After numerous hours of research and several interviews, I cannot say that I completely understand why textbooks are so expensive.  Everyone simply has a different story.  I would love to point a finger and vent my anger to someone, but I honestly don't know who is to blame.  I can only present the facts as I found them along with a few of my own opinions.  Perhaps the book publishers shouldn't bundle books with CD-ROMs and other extras because they inflate costs unnecessarily.  Perhaps, a royalty should be charged on the sale of used books.  The fact is that no single person or group is at fault.  It's all about business -- American capitalism at its finest.  Students want to hold onto the cash they have, while book publishers work hard to coax students into buying their books.
There doesn't seem to be any easy solution to the skyrocketing cost of college textbooks; but, it might help if instructors would not require students to purchase "extras" unless they were an absolutely necessary part of the course.

©2005 James Beach
James Beach is an undergraduate student at the University of Richmond.

The IP comments: First, congratulations to Mr. Beach for his willingness to look at both sides of the issue and for taking the initiative to do more than just complain about a problem.  The IP wanted to see if textbook prices really have risen faster than the rate of inflation, so he checked the cost of some of the textbooks that he used in college and graduate school.  Most were priced under $10.00.  For example, a copy of The Mathematics of Physics and Chemistry by Margenau and Murphy (a standard classic in the field) cost $7.60 in 1962.  In today's dollars the cost should be $46.31; but, a comparable present-day textbook -- Mathematical Methods in the Physical Sciences, 2nd ed. by Mary Boas retails for about $106.00.  Clearly, James has a reason to be unhappy with the cost of textbooks.

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