10/26/2011 6:04 PM ET|
Should textbooks really cost $200?
College students have more alternatives now, such as used books, rentals and digital textbooks. But no option is perfect, making it difficult to find the right solution.
In a world where you can download a best-seller for $10 to $13, the price of college textbooks seems pretty egregious. It's not unusual for a hardcover full-color textbook to cost $200 or more.
Surely, it's time to fight back again greedy publishers and arrogant professors indifferent to the economic plight of their students.
Or . . . maybe it's not that simple.
Activists for the Student Public Interest Research Groups recently completed a multicity tour as part of their "Textbook Rebellion." The mission: to highlight the high cost of textbooks and to push for more alternatives, particularly free "open-source" textbooks.
"The (textbook) market is really dominated by these expensive publishers," said Nicole Allen, the textbook advocate for the Student PIRGs. "We want to topple the regime of these oligopolistic publishers and create a market with a lot more options to choose from."
The textbook protest comes at an interesting time. Spending on textbooks has actually dropped in the past several years, according to market research firm Student Monitor, even as prices rose. Full-time college students at four-year institutions spent an average of $534 on books in the 2010-11 academic year, down from $644 in 2005-06.
Students spent twice as much on their cellphones, the Student Monitor found. They spent more at the movies. They spent more on gas.
That doesn't excuse $200 textbooks for existing, but it does indicate that this issue -- as with most things that have to do with economics -- is more complicated than it may first appear.
At this point, I should air all my potential conflicts of interest, including:
- I'm married to a college professor. He teaches art, though, and doesn't assign textbooks.
- Three of my four books ("Your Credit Score," "Deal With Your Debt" and "Easy Money") are published by FT Press, an arm of Pearson, one of the biggest textbook publishers.
- I thought college textbooks were too expensive decades ago, back when I was a scholarship student and the campus bookstore had a near monopoly on textbook sales, both new and used. Yes, I probably did spend more on beer than books even then, but I still hated shelling out so much to the bookstore every semester.
The difference today is that college students have a wealth of options. None of those options is perfect, which can cause a lot of frustration, resentment and ransacked bank accounts. But they exist nonetheless. In the Student Monitor's survey:
- 49% of textbook spending paid for new books.
- 38% of spending paid for used books.
- 10% went for textbook rentals.
- 2% was spent on e-textbooks.
Freshmen tend to spend more on textbooks than more-seasoned students do, said Eric Weil, Student Monitor's managing partner.
"When young freshmen come on campus, they don't realize there's such a thing as a used book," Weil said. "By the end of the year, they realize having a book that's already highlighted is pretty convenient."
The majority of students (61%) said they compared prices online before buying their books, tapping into the vast bazaar of used books and rentals that can dramatically reduce textbook costs. My Facebook fans who cut textbook costs said they use a variety of sites to look for books, including Amazon.com, CampusBookRentals.com, Chegg, AbeBooks.com and Barnes & Noble. Comparison sites such as AddAll, BigWords.com, BookFinder.com and DealOz scour online booksellers to help you find the textbooks you need.
Interestingly, it's this vast, vigorous secondhand and rental market that's indirectly abetting the high cost of new textbooks.
Here's why: Creating a new textbook can be costly, and the market for most textbooks isn't that huge. Back when publishers had a captive audience, they could more or less count on being able to spread those costs of production over a certain number of buyers.
As the used and rental markets expanded, that captive audience was captive no more. So now publishers often produce "updated" versions as a way of selling more books -- spreading out the costs of production over more buyers.
VIDEO ON MSN MONEY
All students knew when I went to college in the 1970's that professors wrote textbooks simply for an extra income AND to ensure their points of view were promoted in the studies. And not only did they write the textbooks for the classes they taught, they also made minor changes EVERY semester so that students were forced to buy NEW textbooks and could not simply buy used ones at a discount. Of course, that is still the case. And, when in college is is not unusual for a three semester hour course to have 50 to 100 students per class meeting 3 times per week for one hour, that amounts to A LOT of extra income for the professor. Just one class thus provides the professor with as much as $10,000 for the semester. Therefore, since he/she teaches up to six courses (6 classes of 3 semester hours each) per week, the professor is netting as much as $60,000 extra income per semester. That is if he/she is smart enough to make a few changes to the textbook each semester and thus require a NEW textbook be purchased by each and every student.
I have bought text books three times as a student for classes, most of my books have been between $50 and $100 per book. The most expensive text books I bought where used for two to three classes, examples being the books for Biology, Calculus and Chemistry each used for 2-3 classes in order, so Biology 1 and Biology 2.
Over the twenty years I have had courses in different colleges and universities the cost per book has not gone up that much. As to buying used text books now day I have classmates that bought the text book and then found that in the price of the text there was a one use code to an online lab system where most of the course work and tests are done. The cost of the book with code new was about 70% the cost of just getting a code from the publisher. Now I have only sold one text book back in all my years of courses and that was because the book store had posted the wrong book for the class.
As to E-books and their readers, what happens when they pull the text from you right before a final because they did not have the rights to publish that book in that format. The standard I recall and may be wrong about for a hard copy book is once you buy it you get to keep it the fact that the publisher was not legal to print and sell it does not affect you at all. I saw one comment that i read that talked about the cost being less for an E-book then a print copy of the book, If I recall most of the costs in publishing the text are not in the paper and ink, and thus will not be reduced and must be passed along to the buyer (IE: Student). Also if as said in one post the E-copy would be a one semester use by codes, how do you keep a book that you are likely to need to refer back to in later classes or in your work life after school is over.
what a rip off, that's why I am all for trade schools instead of college, in college you pay for all those extra classes that having no baring on the degree or fields you pursuing , college is a big money rip off scam that probably 8 out of 10 people will never use or work in the field they went to college for.
Summerteeth: When the liberals evidently found the invisible codes in the constitution (think National Treasure and Ben Franklin's glasses) that made education some how a "human right", the idiocy of ignoring what any college educated person should know is that "margins" as you say, are calculated AFTER all expenses.
Expenses, (again all grads should know) include all wages, including and especially the absurd bonuses and completely unjust tax free perks that are paid in those industries just exactly like publishing!
Moral of the story, statistics will say what you bend them to say!
So the publisher's initial investment in producing the text has to be mostly recovered the first year of sales, because of the total of 15,000 copies sold, only 6,100 earn the publisher anything at all. It could easily have taken $600,000 to produce and market the textbook 10 years ago (now it can exceed $1,000,000). Add to this the considerable loss from faculty who naively sell their examination copies to used book sellers -- you know, the ones marked "Do Not Resell" -- and the students who pirate copies and give electronic versions of them away (for a small fee) on the internet - and you have a losing battle for the publisher. To stay in business a new edition has to be brought out, and the price has to go up.
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