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The high costs of textbooks

September 21, 2011

A colleague, Gopalan Srinivasan, passed on the following opinion piece:

The other day my student indicated that the textbook for the course was costing almost $200 and I was shocked. The tuition for the course, which gives them about 33hours of face to face lectures, assignments, feedback and all other infrastructural support from the university, is around $500. For the text book to cost almost 40% of tuition is fundamentally wrong. I am surprised that students who raise issues about tuition, student loans and bursaries do not raise their voices more against the escalating book costs. I cannot fully explain. Maybe they are indifferent because it is added to their student loan or they go without a book and struggle. But the academic community has equally failed to express their outrage. Granted there are many of us who are authors of these text books. But the real reason for the price is the enormous margin the publishers and the distributors pocket. The secondary market for books has been systematically limited to very few runs by frequent editions with minimal change in substance. I have not see a research study that does a content analysis across editions of text books.

I wonder why, like the pharmacists, we academic cannot substitute with a cheaper generic version of a text. My guess is more than 90% of the real content required for the course can be captured in less than 25% of the pages in a text. Of course there will be a big hue and cry from the textbook publishers and to a lesser extent from authors. One can understand in the pharmaceutical industry because the original product is fully developed internally and there is an enormous research cost. A generic version uses the original manufacturer’s research. But in a text book the concepts are already in a free domain.  The rules of calculus or the formula for present value are not the invention of the authors. The text book can best be described as a bottled water business. The water business uses by and large the municipal water —mind you the capture and purification has  been paid buy us — and bottle it and sell to us as healthy and convenient. They may even spend promotional costs convincing us that the municipal water is not safe!

I think a good part of the responsibility goes to our educational system that has been built under the premise that students have to be motivated, not challenged, and that they need job skills, not education.

If we have a generic book that defines interest as “I” whereas another book defines interest as “r” and the students complain that the generic book has the wrong formulas, then they deserve to pay more for text books. A colleague of mine was telling me that when he used a cheaper text and supplemented with his own notes the students felt they had been short changed as the other class had a BIG book.

Look at the irony. The current generation of students are technologically savvy and I am not, whereas  my (hypothetical) publisher pays me to include in the text instructions for a specific financial calculator: press the PMT button, press “F1” press “=” etc. It takes me more time to locate those keys than to get the answer manually! I do not know how suddenly we are selling nails to blacksmiths.

What kind or reactions can one expect from the students?  Those who can afford it will consider buying a book to give themselves a “competitive advantage” and in their mind the high priced books may eliminate the “weak links”. There others who do not see it as a cost because it is all deferred in their student loans. But there will be quite a few who will be enterprising enough to circumvent the high cost. Of course copyright violations may occur, which may be illegal. But in their minds that is one way to recapture the consumer deficit. Just like bribes, which are a distribution of consumer surplus across parties, copyright violations may be a way of reducing consumer deficit. Both acts are illegal. But then, as Oliver Goldsmith once said, “Laws grind the poor, and rich men rule the law” (“The Traveller,” l.386)





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