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Are Students Entitled to Forego Buying Textbooks Because of Price?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

book priceAs a former bookseller and someone who still owes several thousand dollars in student loans, despite now being over the age of 40, I’ve always found it a bit odd how at the beginning of each semester study after study reveals complaints from students about the price of textbooks and their learning materials in general. As noted in today’s feature editorial, “Digital Textbooks: Publishers and the Unrealized Promise,” “roughly one out of every three seniors and 1 in 4 freshmen don’t buy required materials because of their price.”

The author of the editorial, an executive at Flat World Knowledge, represents a company that offers a cheaper solution to the often $100+ textbooks offered by the monopolistic education publishers. And bravo to that!

Of course, when you’re taking 8-10 classes a year, paying $100 or more for a book can really add up — that’s an additional $800-$1,000 (or in many cases, likely more) that you need to spend.

But let’s be honest, if you don’t buy the books or required course-packs why are you even attending class? Isn’t the whole point of attending college, in essence, to spend four years (or less or more) doing nothing but reading and talking about what you read?

Yes, you might, might be able get a required coursebook out of the library — though in the case of most textbooks that is not the case — or perhaps share a book with a study group or friend. But to share, you would need to be very well organized. And how many college-age students do you know who are organized enough to keep this up throughout an entire year?

The price of textbooks is a small part of the overall price of higher education in the United States, which continues to increase by a rate of 4% per year, or twice the rate of inflation. That’s not to say that publishers couldn’t lower the price of textbooks or come up with cheaper models, as Flat World Knowledge has done, or are exploiting a monopolistic market position. But if someone is paying $22,261 (the average price for a year at a public university) or $43,289 (the average price for year at private university), books still represent a modest percentage of overall expense.

Again, foregoing books because they are expensive seems tantamount to leasing or buying a car and not putting gas in it. (And who in the United States doesn’t complain about the pervasive seasonal hikes in gas prices?)

Is there a solution? Not really. Each student has different financial demands. Some have help from their parents, some work their way through college, some have other obligations, such as family or children, and simply try to do what they can — often, it is some combination of all three.

So long as education remains so expensive then textbook publishers are going to continue to feel entitled to keep prices high. Fortunately, others will try and find a better solution.

BONUS: USA Today/Princeton Review’s 150 Best Value Colleges

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5 Comments

  1. Posted February 22, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    “But let’s be honest, if you don’t buy the books or required course-packs why are you even attending class?” – I was a little surprised at this comment. Your argument essentially boils down to the basic premise of : buy the texbooks, because when compared to the vast debt you are accumulating as a student, the books are only a small portion of that debt. The credit card is almost maxed out, so there is no harm in swiping that last purchase.

    I cannot agree with you. The basic facts around the low sales of textbooks are rather simple – the costs are too high. Grossly inflated, in fact, considering the recession and the lowed purchasing power of families. The price of e-textbooks is even worse – the same price for a book that costs virtually nothing to distribute, manufacture or store? The subscriptions of (publicly funded) journals can range from $2000 – $10,000. A new edition of each textbook is being constantly released, and sometimes the differences between editions is minimal yet students are expected to foot the bill?

    Students cannot afford this and hence do not purchase the books. Why should they increase their debt on a commodity that is vastly overpriced? Why feed the demand when there are other ways around this?

    I found your question quite derogatory as you decried the limited number of students who are actually able to be organised. Trust me. They are better organised than you know or remember. Students purchase second-hand copies. They summarize and share notes with the year below them. They will photocopy the books from the library – and I don’t blame them. Who would want to buy the book if only 3 chapters are included in the coursework?

    Not organised? Please. A comment like that only demonstrates how truly disconnected you are from the reality of the situation.

  2. Edward Nawotka
    Posted February 22, 2013 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    @Ken, let me address your primary objection: I should have said, “I don’t know so many college graduates, let alone college students, who are organized enough to share a book over the entire course of a semester.” Ever tried sharing a book with your spouse, partner, girlfriend, what have you? It’s tricky and nothing like owning a book outright and having 100% access to it over time.

    More to your point, I work directly with numerous recent college graduates. They come and go. Some are indeed organized, some indeed are not. Would I want to have to share a required textbook over the course of four months with any of them? No. But I wouldn’t want to have to share it with anyone.

    Of course, we all see things from our own perspective. When you write: “The price of e-textbooks is even worse – the same price for a book that costs virtually nothing to distribute, manufacture or store?” It’s a fact that digital editions are not free to “distribute, manufacture or store” — as such. Digital books have simliar costs associated with them as print books, a fact that is well documented.

    As for textbook sales being “low” — that too is false. Education is the strongest category of book sales and has been for as long as any of us have been alive. Why? A ready-made group of consumers that wants to buy them.

    But these are quibble in what’s a larger argument in which you fail to see my point. Yes, indeed, I do think it’s not wise that if a student is already paying $2,000 – $4,000 per course, to forgo buying the required texts is simply counterproductive.

    In a university environment, books are the foundation of the experience, not merely an “added expense.”

    I agree with you that a college education has gotten absurdly expensive. Textbooks is part of this equation. No they are not cheap and they could, potentially, be cheaper. So could tuition. But overall, textbooks are a modest percentage of the overall expense. And since education begins in your own head, on your own time, with learning often provoked by the books you read, which then extends to the classroom, it strikes me as poor prioritization to forgo buying the required texts, even if “just 3 chapters are needed for the coursework.” You don’t think there’s an added benefit to having the entire book on hand, a book you might actually want to read all of to, say, further your education?

    It’s a contentious issue and I do appreciate the back and forth. That’s why I put this out there.

  3. Posted February 23, 2013 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    “But let’s be honest, if you don’t buy the books or required course-packs why are you even attending class? Isn’t the whole point of attending college, in essence, to spend four years (or less or more) doing nothing but reading and talking about what you read?”

    I thought the point was to learn. If the point was to read and talk about it, why bother having a professor in the class? Learning doesn’t have to come from books. In my last semester, I had three classes and three textbooks. In only one of them did I actually read the material in the book. In the second, I opened it only to do the homework. And in the third, well, I wish I had a time machine to go back and not buy that book, because I never once opened it. The professor wrote everything we needed to know in that class on the white board for us to copy. And then at the end of the semester? New edition. My $90 textbook was now worth $5.

  4. Caterina R.
    Posted February 26, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    I am an apparently disorganized college-aged student. Hello! And no, you would not want to share a textbook with me, Mr. Nawotka, because I never buy the textbooks. I don’t think I should be entitled to buy expensive textbooks when I can succeed without them.

    I’m a top scholarship recipient at my college, and I make straight As. I usually check out/order books from the library a couple weeks before I need them, or I cope with the Google Books preview/Amazon SearchInside. Sometimes I’ll hit the cheapo jackpot and find a chapter some merciful professor posted on the Internet. If I’m unlucky, I have to make do with reading the surrounding criticism of the work. Yes, I’m probably the exception which proves the rule.

    Learning, I’ve found, is largely what I make it. It is sitting in a Biology lecture while reading literary theory, or reading the entire book instead of the excerpt provided by the evermore expensive anthology. I am organized, but I don’t think that’s why I receive As while the majority of students shuffle away with Bs or worse. I care about learning. I love the acquisition of knowledge, and few of my peers feel the same.

    I see so many students in college because it is expected of them, or the way to a better job, or the mandate of their parents. These students may or may not buy the textbooks, but their apathy dooms them.

    When I’m a professor someday, I’m sure I’ll be tempted by that shiny complete umpteenth edition set that Norton or Longman (or both!) sends me. Yes, I think the professors are sometimes the problem. The publishers who charge heinous amounts for whisper-thin paper, condescending annotations, and cheap bindings (I had a prof who handed out rubber bands to hold our books together the first day of class) are the problem.

    Breathe a sigh of relief, though, you top-hatted rulers of society. I think the issues of education are the fault of this culture, which dumps ill-prepared and ill-mannered students into classes they are destined to fail. I agree with you, Mr. Nawotka. I’m glad others will try to find a better solution, too.

    Students shouldn’t be entitled to forego buying textbooks until colleges stop being quality-control filters for the world. In the meantime, then, Norton/Longman/Anyone, want to send me some books?

  5. ofer
    Posted March 6, 2013 at 9:30 am | Permalink

    As seen in these past comments, different students have different experiences and professors use textbooks in different ways. In some classes they used extensively, others they really have no clear added value. This depends on the subject as well as the professor. I agree with the premise that not getting a textbook because of the price does defeat the purpose of being at school. If the textbook is necessary one should figure out how to get access to it at the lowest possible price. In general the best strategy is buying used and reselling. As one comment mentioned the greatest price risk is the publishers’ habit of creating new editions that are not much different than the previous, thus eroding resale value. One way to take advantage of this practice is to buy previous editions that often are sufficent (ask your prof in advance) and cost a fraction of a new current edition.

    -Ofer
    The Cheap Textbook

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