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Sunday, February 15, 2015

It's Ridiculous: The Price of Textbooks Today

Intro to Stats digital textbook- $9.95
I’m a college student. And I love learning- I really do. But students today have to jump through more hoops than ever before in order to complete their education. There are more competitive applications and admissions exams, more scholarship applications, more loans, more hidden costs, and, most importantly, there is more student debt. I did well in high school AP classes, I aced the SAT and ACT, and I applied early to colleges. While I’m extremely happy with where I ended up, there is one aspect of my two years at university (so far) that I would change in a heartbeat: the textbook bubble.

Students across the nation recognize that the rising price of academic textbooks is a problem. I’m very lucky- I have a great academic scholarship, so my parents are able to financially support me in the textbook department (thanks so much again, Mom and Dad!), but that doesn’t stop me from feeling sticker-shock and price-induced guilt.

“Wow, Mom, I’m so sorry,” I said over the phone while standing in the aisle of the university bookstore in the Fall of 2014. “My physics book is $280.” Of course I had to buy the book new- it came with a package for the online software we used for homework in the course. And that was just physics. I was also enrolled in a French class (a different book from my previous semester of French), an upper-level math course (two smaller books, think about the size of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for each), and an honors seminar on modern art (special ordered for the university bookstore book). My total price tag at the bookstore: $450.

And that’s just one semester of my story. College students around the country have different circumstances than mine: some struggle to pay the campus bookstore prices, some search online for discounts and end up buying sometimes outdated editions, and others -- a staggering 65 percent of students according to this article [9] --  are willing to forgo buying an assigned book altogether because of the price. If anything is more ridiculous than the prices students are forced to pay, it’s this: Students are going to great lengths to save money at the expense of a coherent learning experience. Professors choose a specific book to accompany their course because the material is relevant. If 65% of students who can’t afford full-price textbooks simply don’t buy the book, they’re missing out on all of the material not covered in lectures.

We can laugh about the prices being ridiculous (check out this comic about a well-known calculus textbook [4]), but finding humor in the situation doesn’t ease the financial strain that textbooks are putting on students across the United States. While my bookstore expenses were $450 that semester, one Boston University student featured in this article [1] spent a reported $750 in the same semester. A large percentage of students take out student loans to put themselves through classes. It may seem like a good solution to save a few bucks by buying a used textbook from a friend, but that can be deceiving as well. “As publishers sell fewer new textbooks, the price of those new volumes goes up. And so does the price of used books.” [6] If prices rise much higher, students will have to take out loans for course materials alone.

Just how high are textbook prices? In 2012, this article [8] determined that textbook prices had risen by 812% since 1978. The problems that come from the textbook industry are many and varied. The textbook market bubble has ballooned, much like the housing market in 2006. The textbook market is monopolized, with a few recognizable names at the top driving prices higher and competitors out of business. And the textbook market is advertised to professors, who see the textbooks without their price tags. Then these professors, often unaware of or indifferent towards the financial stress they cause, instruct their students to buy books. It’s obvious that the classic megapublisher oligarchy needs to be reformed (I’m looking at you, Pearson, Prentice, McGraw-Hill…).

Consider this scenario: There are two cities, X and Y. Five companies exist and compete to transport travelers from X to Y and beyond. Nearly everyone has traveled with the first four companies; they’ve been transporting commuters for years. Many citizens, depending on where they reside, are required to purchase tickets and travel with one of the first four.

The first four companies have long been providing travel via bus, and very recently began offering a quicker  rail option. Bus travelers pay an exorbitant ticket price and are often required to purchase an accompanying travel guide. The rail tickets are often as expensive as the bus routes, and don’t last as long; they often require renewal before even making it from City X to City Y. The interiors of the busses and trains are often rearranged and renovated, and new passes are required with every update. The travelers are not the main focus of these four companies- they want profits first and foremost.

But what about the fifth company? It is younger and lesser known. They appear to be doing things quite differently. The fifth company offers subway travel almost exclusively, but has bus options for those who prefer it. Commuters buy a single ticket at an affordable price and use that ticket on the same route as many times as they want. The fifth company only alters their trains and busses when it’s completely necessary. Extra purchases, like a travel guide, are not required, but amenities are available at any time. In fact, some of these amenities/upgrades don’t cost anything at all. The fifth company is not purely focused on profits- they are focused on affordable and accessible travel between cities X and Y.

The first four companies have done well enough for decades. But it’s obvious to travelers that it’s time to give the fifth a chance.

Calculus 1 digital textbook- $9.95
If you’re not catching my drift above, the fifth company in the transportation metaphor is a primarily digital textbook company. The Worldwide Center of Mathematics is indeed smaller and younger than publishers like Pearson or McGraw-Hill, but it is much more focused on giving students what they need to get from the first day of class to acing the final. It is the Center’s process which saves money for the student. The Center keeps quality high and costs low by creating personal partnerships with authors and issuing PDF textbooks that average around $10. Available for free on the Center of Math website are huge video playlists for students that need a different perspective on a math lecture, and links to open-source resources. This company, unlike so many in the education sector, exists to help students instead of engaging in ruthless price gouging tactics. Remember the famous calculus textbook that was spoofed in this comic [4]? A calculus textbook of the same caliber is available at the Center of Math Store for $9.95. That’s savings of approximately 95%.

How can we reform the textbook market? First and foremost we need to listen to students. Here in this blog [5], a group recommends using open source online textbooks and affordable print options. Another group of students have been turning to pirated, illegally downloaded files [6]. These solutions show what the students need, but they are not the best options. In order to prevent pirating or the need for totally open books, why not simply make textbooks more affordable? Smaller, specialized publishers like the Worldwide Center of Math exist and keep prices low by connecting with individual authors. Affordable and accessible textbooks encourage responsible buyer-behavior and support the authors.

We also need to be unafraid to make the move to digital textbooks like Worldwide Textbooks. This article [10] describes an incredible new solution: creating digital textbooks means no distribution or printing costs, so authors earn more royalties without driving prices higher. An added benefit to digital textbooks is that students can carry all their materials on a tablet or their laptop; no more lugging two textbooks and a computer across campus to the library.

WCoM Calculus Formula Add-On- $1.95
I believe that the best way to keep costs low and support the authors writing textbooks is to support smaller companies. But there is another problem to overcome: a student can purchase a more affordable textbook, but if the professor of that course is using a different textbook, it makes doing the homework problems or keeping up with definitions nearly impossible. So in order to get affordable textbooks for students, we must bring the affordable options to professors. If they can see that, for example, the Worldwide Differential Calculus book is just as rigorous as the more famous book, they may switch and require a $10.00 textbook instead of a $210.00 textbook to their class. We need to create awareness that affordable options exist, and that they are just as good (if not better) at getting students from X to Y.

The rising cost of textbooks is one of the most important problems plaguing the students of America, but the solution is simple. Take part in the textbook reform movement. Recommend Worldwide Textbooks to your professors this semester. Demand an affordable education, and Adopt Affordable textbooks today.

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