The average college textbook costs a student $84.14. Students buy an average of 5.8 textbooks per semester. That averages $488 per semester or just under a thousand dollars per academic year. These are the results of an annual survey for CampusBooks.com.
In disciplines such as biology and chemistry, one new textbook can exceed $200. Back in the 1980s, those textbooks were just as thick and colorful and could usually be bought for $40–$60 dollars. Since the cost of paper and printing has actually gone down, why has the cost soared?
One problem is that market forces are not at work. It is the professor that the textbook company has to charm and the students who have to pay. Some professors do not consider the cost of their textbook in their decision. And with digital bells-and-whistles being added over these last twenty years, it is ironic that the exorbitant cost of a textbook today is due not to the paper book production, but to the many electronic ancillaries that companies tout to professors.
Many of today’s textbooks—especially the general education books that are taken by high numbers of students across the nation’s campuses—offer online tutoring to students, online practice quizzes, the actual quizzes with grading, and even total testing. This is in addition to ready-made PowerPoints and short video clips that can be downloaded from the textbook company site. To a professor at a big research university who is burdened with teaching a large section of 300 or more students (but who really wants to spend all his time doing research), the textbook company has the perfect answer. The book company provides the canned lessons and testing and the students pay for these digital extras through the required textbook that costs four times more than it should.
At some online for-profit operations, an adjunct faculty member seizes the offers from custom "publishers": “Send in your class notes and we will bind them as a required book. Then require your students to buy it and we will split the profits.” Such hire-a-profs can make more money from this online textbook scheme than they are paid to teach the course.
With the average college student taking 5 ½ years to complete a bachelor’s degree—primarily because 60–70 percent of students change majors at least once—the average cost of college textbooks can approach $5000. Since rising tuition is beyond their control, more-and-more students are cutting corners on textbooks. According to CampusBooks.com, the average textbook depreciates 40 percent the first semester and 60 percent after two semesters. Textbook companies often produce new editions every two years, based on unnecessary and trivial changes; this drops the sell-back value of the prior edition to zero.
Their survey revealed that 25 percent of students buy new and 67 percent buy used textbooks. Notice that this leaves some students who go without a textbook, often attempting to find the content online. Today, 55 percent rent their new or used book. Freshmen tend to buy new books while seniors increasingly rent their books. In the freshman year, textbook cost averages $572 per semester; this drops to $421 a semester in the senior year.
eTexts have been a massive failure in students’ eyes. Although the computer-industrial complex keeps hyping digital media, students began turning away from electronics to paper well before 2014. This new survey conducted by Campbell Rinker for CampusBooks.com sampled American college students from May 5–10, 2016. The number of students who owned a laptop dropped 8 percent from 2014. E-reader use was down 22 percent. This confirms earlier surveys in 2014 that found that 80 percent of students preferred print to screen.
The solution to the exorbitant textbook scam lies in the hands of professors. There are new “publishers” appearing who will provide very inexpensive textbooks that can be downloaded cheaply or bought at minimal cost, printed on demand.
As the cost of higher education in public institutions skyrockets, this is one place where professors sensitive to the desperate plight of economically poor students can make some difference.