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College textbook scam

8/22/2014

In 1960, $200 would buy your college books for a whole year. Today, a single book can exceed that cost. Why is textbook cost so high when the actual costs of printing have declined?

In 1960, $200 would buy your college books for a whole year. Today, a single book can exceed that cost. Why is textbook cost so high when the actual costs of printing have declined?

The answer is two-fold: 1) the digital "revolution" and 2) the professors select the textbook and the students have to buy it.

In the late 1980s, we adopted a biology text that sold for $50 new and was available used for the next four years for $15 to $25. It had a four-year cycle between editions.

Most students could buy used books after the first semester of a new edition. But publishers only made big sales the first semester a book was released. Many moved to producing new editions every two years. Half of our students were shortchanged: The first semester they had to buy all new books, and the fourth semester they could not sell them back.

I told a publisher's representative at the exhibitor's hall at a biology teaching convention that although they had the best textbook, we would not adopt it until it went from a two-year cycle back to a four-year cycle. I recall the book rep having a fit and yelling down the aisle, "You won't buy our textbook even though it is the best just because we update each two years." His colleagues restrained him. I wondered if I should not have baited him. I got over it.

Textbook companies usually provided professors with printed instruction manuals and test item files. These few printed copies added little to the cost. But with the arrival of electronic ancillaries, textbook companies began including a wide array of videos for teachers and tutoring services for students. The cost of these bells-and-whistles drove textbook prices up dramatically.

Few students used these services. I asked our book representatives: "If the students' book cost was just based on the printed book, would the price to our students be cut in half?"

"Less than half," was their reply. "But we have to spread the high cost of the extras across all buyers. We can't charge you less just because you aren't using them."

They would not drop the bells and whistles because they believed they would be at a disadvantage against other book companies that touted this high tech. My colleagues and I have surveyed our students on how much they used these add-ons -- virtually not at all. Still, the publishers dazzle the professors, and the students pay the high price.

Many of our textbooks without tech support legally are sold overseas by U.S. publishers at a small fraction of the U.S. price. When U.S. courts ruled those texts then could be imported and sold here, publishers found another scam to keep prices high: the eText. That $50 science textbook that now costs a student $250 is offered as an e-Text by download at just $150 or $200. Publishers love this. At the end of the semester, the e-Text goes away, and there is no book to enter the used-book market.

Other publishers are using small online "press runs" in an unholy alliance with some professors who get an exorbitant cut of the high cost of an online "text." While professors who wrote a printed textbook 20 years ago legitimately could require their text for their class, it had to be of high quality and be sold at many universities; the small royalty on each printed book did not drive up costs. Now a student goes to the college bookstore and buys, not a printed book, but a card with an access code to download the eText that was written by their teacher and is only used on a few campuses. By conspiring with professors to require an online text, there is nothing sold back to provide used books. But instead of these eTexts being cheaper, some publishers and professors have colluded in greed to charge even more.

Another subtle and long-standing technique is to seduce professors into adopting a text by asking them to "review it" for an honorarium. But the publisher's "review questions" are more about what is needed to get it adopted than about any academic quality.

This few-hundred-dollar "bribe" works often enough, and the publisher can sell tens of thousands of dollars in textbooks when their book is adopted.

Professors should take the time to consider their students' economic plight. This college textbook racket is a problem professors can go far to solve. Indeed, no one else can solve it.

John Richard Schrock is a professor

in the Department of Biological Sciences

at Emporia State University.

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