We keep hearing how scandalous it is that the cost of textbooks has risen so high. $200 or $300 per copy does sound pretty extraordinary to me. Apparently the cost of textbooks has gone up by 73% since 2006, 4 times inflation, according to Covering the Cost, as reported by NBC. Of course the cost of attending college has also shot up by a factor of 17 since 1971, which would only be slightly less than 6 if it had tracked inflation. CNBC has a good piece on this which features a fun variable inflation calculator. However this rate of increase is thrown into the shadows by textbook prices which since 1988 have gone up 1,041% (again according to NBC).
For the colleges it’s supply and demand I guess. The number of student enrollments keeps growing — it’s doubled since 1971 — so you’d be nuts (if you were running a business) not to raise your prices. This turns into an almost risk-free strategy when you add student loans into the mix. Higher price: bigger loan. Bigger loan: longer repayment schedule — not our problem! Of course colleges and universities are not (mostly) straightforward profit-seeking enterprises, but they obviously have costs, and covering them is important. If you can more than cover your costs you can use the extra to improve your offerings: more and better professors, flashy labs etc. and this will draw yet more students your way.
Of course textbooks aren’t cheap to make. Joe Esposito explains at The Scholarly Kitchen why it is college textbooks are as expensive as they are. They are large, complex and risky: and their sales are being eaten into by the second-hand and rental markets. His words are quoted in this dispassionate round-up from Vox via Book Business. This cynical piece at MarketWatch attributes it all to wickedness on the part of publishers, who, seeing financial aid increase, up their prices to absorb these extra funds. This essay from Library Babel Fish, sympathetic to the cost side of the business, comes from an author who has worked on textbook materials and knows what’s involved.
Despite all the talk (and the money spent) it seems that students remain reluctant to go the digital route. The Digital Reader has a report on Quartz‘s research, and a later article with more of a round-up of evidence which NBC reports on too.
The free on-line textbook movement is growing. Here now is news from USA Today, via The Passive Voice, that the University of Maryland University College will be eliminating the textbook and replacing it with on-line resources which they’ll create themselves. I guess if they are forced to use this stuff the Maryland students will. One suspect their dislike of on-line reading will yield to their parents’ dislike of large book bills. The Digital Reader tells us it’s happening in Canada too. Now Congress is getting in on the act with a bill to make textbooks free on-line. Publishing Perspectives picks up the story from Huffington Post whilst NBC and AP both report too.
But is there such a thing as a free textbook? Surely someone has to pay permissions fees for material picked up from other authors — or is the plan just to steal it in the name of the greater good which is “education”? Rutgers, according to WPIX, plans to by-pass the problem by paying faculty to write open source textbooks. OK. But setting aside $12,000 for the purpose seems ludicrously ineffectual. Joe Esposito tells us the generally accepted average cost of creating a textbook is $750,000. These things take a long, long time to write, and people who do take up their pens to this end tend to be tied into the project for two or three years at least. Cynically one might suspect that all this open textbook talk is just window dressing. The people who write the books are the people who require students to buy the books. You obviously have a vested interest in making your book a success; it covers the subject in the best way you know; why wouldn’t you make your students buy it? Even if you didn’t write it yourself, you still have a price-free motivation to chose the very best.
Inside Higher Education, via Jose Afonso Furtado, gives us Naomi S. Baron calling for a new approach. Surely something is going to have to happen; the current situation seems untenable from the students’, the universities’, and the publishers’ points of view.