Monday, September 19, 2005


I’m in the wrong business.

Some students have been complaining about the price of textbooks for certain classes. Curious, I went to the bookstore and roamed the stacks, seeing just what they’re paying.


The students are right. The costs are absurd.

Intro to [a popular foreign language] -- $200. (That’s roughly $250 Canadian, I think.) That ain’t right. At $200 per course, a student taking a full load would spend $1,000/semester just on books. When these students work 30 hours a week outside of class (for about $7 an hour), that’s real money. It’s almost as high as the tuition for the course.

As a community college, we sweat blood to keep our tuition as low as possible, so low-income students will still have access to higher education. Apparently, publishers have no such reservations; any money we leave on the table, they happily hoover.

They’re getting craftier about it, too. Where once a given edition of a textbook might last for four years, now it lasts for two. (That way, they can short-circuit the market in used textbooks, which is their main competition.) Change the pagination, add a bell here and a whistle there, and suddenly students who would otherwise have saved money buying used are forced to buy new (or to go without). (Another trick is the ‘free’ add-on. This textbook comes with a free workbook! The point of the add-on is to disqualify used books. Too many faculty fall for this.)

If they sign up early enough, crafty students know to book-shop on the web and avoid the on-campus markup. It helps, but even without the local markup, these things cost too much. The shame of it is compounded by the general lameness of most textbooks. Complaining about the unreadability of textbooks is a longstanding faculty and student pastime, and for good reason. Most of them, well, suck.

When I was in college, I recall my friends in the sciences complaining about textbook prices (and rightly so), but at least those could be explained by the number and detail of illustrations. Now, the virus has spread, and no discipline is safe. Textbooks with no need for fancy or detailed illustrations, in plain-vanilla intro courses to mainstream disciplines, routinely go for three figures.

Parents complain, naturally, but they complain at us, instead of the publishers. So we cut costs wherever possible, carrying a higher percentage of adjuncts on the faculty and only putting the course schedule on the web (instead of printing it), and publishers blithely hike prices by double digits annually. The students and parents don’t see the economic benefit of our frugality (or brutality, if you prefer), since ‘total cost’ is the relevant number to them. If more of that total goes to publishers and less to us, it makes no difference to the billpayer.

An editorial in the Times recently suggested that colleges simply bundle the textbook cost in with tuition, and provide the textbooks to the students free of charge, like high schools do. I can’t even begin to describe the ways that idea would fail. Departments would come under pressure to choose the cheapest books, regardless of quality. Book prices go up much faster than institutional budgets do (or will, or could), so we’d wind up eating more of the difference ourselves (read: more adjuncts, bigger classes). A kid who failed a class once and retook it would be forced to pay for the book a second time, which would benefit nobody but the publishers. The market for used books would crater, because students effectively would be forced to pay full price for books; now, at least the savvier ones have the option of buying used and saving money, or trading with friends, or book-shopping online, or using the library. Bundling books with tuition would render those options irrelevant. Finally, and most damningly, have you looked at a high school textbook lately? College texts have their shortcomings, to be sure, but at least they don’t have to get approved by central committees. Start bundling the texts for the huge intro classes, and the central committees will become relevant.

I don’t know the solution to this. I’ve encouraged my department chairs to keep cost in mind when they select textbooks, but in many areas, there are only a few acceptable choices and they’re all costly. E-books seem to have natural limits, and those pesky copyright laws make the old damn-the-torpedoes-photocopy-everything approach untenable. The library isn’t going to purchase and keep anywhere near enough copies to be a solution. Custom publishing our own textbooks offers at least the possibility of getting around royalties (and insisting on paperbacks), but it can create issues with course transfer. We live and die by transfer, so we really can’t play games with that.

Any ideas out there?