Students returning to fall semester classes are facing sticker-shock in college bookstores. Textbooks that formerly ran $40-to-$80 a few years ago are now costing $200 and $300 each.
As a result, students’ textbook-buying behavior is changing. According to a survey of students by the Book Industry Study Group and reported in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, more college students are viewing textbooks as recommended rather than required and “...students are waiting to see how much the material is used before they buy them.” Meanwhile, professors “...almost never see the course materials as optional.” More and more, “...students are waiting to see how much the material is used before they buy them," according to the survey manager.
The survey found that student spending on class materials dropped from $638 in the 2013-14 academic year to $563 for the 2014-15 year. In addition to students waiting to see if the materials will actually be used in class, part of this drop was a shift to cheaper textbook rental.
And about 11 percent of students now have some courses that use new “integrated learning systems”
where the text, videos, quizzes and homework are delivered online. Publishers have realized that at big research universities that only value research, many instructors of large classes are glad to turn over these teaching duties to a publisher’s online system, essentially turning the lecture course into a pre-packaged online operation that is impersonal and standardized.
The production cost for a paper textbook is actually very low—most $200 textbooks could be profitably sold to students for $40 if it were not for the electronic ancillaries and support services that publishers feel they must provide to compete—extra bells-and-whistles that most students do not use.
Meanwhile, surveys of college students reveal that students continue to overwhelmingly prefer paper text over e-Texts for a variety of reasons that are supported by research on deep reading, reading speed, comprehension and skimming.
Some professors are sensitive to their students’ dilemma and recognize the legalized extortion involved. They are encouraging colleagues: “Don’t require a textbook if you don’t use it!” Some make textbook adoption decisions based on the best-book-at-the-cheapest-price and only adopt a text after it has been on-the-market a semester so there are used books available.
One solution that is not working is the use of “open source” online materials. Depending upon the discipline, there can be serious concerns with quality. Copyright-free material is often out-of-date.
Good publishers subject texts to careful peer review that is often missing in open source materials that are cobbled together from questionable sources. And online open source materials continue to have the drawbacks of e-texts and other electronic media.
Royalties to authors of bonafide textbooks are rarely a factor in the high costs of textbooks. When a quality book is adopted by many universities, the royalties the author receives are in the range of a few coins. Copyright is not the problem driving up textbook costs.
But thanks to the internet and predatory publishers, there are now offers to professors to send in their class notes. These can then be “published” online and required by that single instructor. The publisher will split the exorbitant price with the author-professor. Nowhere the quality to be adopted by any other instructor, this “text” can bring in more income to the instructor than their salary, especially if they are a poorly-paid part time adjunct.
Honest professors, departmental chairs and higher administrators can and should bring such practices to a stop. But so far, the runaway costs of textbooks due to some inconsiderate professors, some disgraceful publishers, and some technology crazies—continues.