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The price to pay: What textbooks cost a college education | The Triangle

The price to pay: What textbooks cost a college education

Outside, the sky is fading to deep purple as the sun disappears, but in the Hagerty Library’s cafe, students are just revving up. All of the red booths with black power outlets in their tables are filled with friends meeting up for dinner before class, study groups lamenting about midterms, and lone wolves—headphones in, heads bent—working on assignments. More people continue to shuffle in with white cellophane boxes containing cheesesteaks, hoagies and Halal food from Drexel’s food trucks. The sounds and laughter of classmates are only interrupted by the beep and swoosh of the turnstile at the front of the library.

Priya Bhut and Loveena Williams sit in the middle of the room at one of the tables. The two friends share a joke over the wrappers and burnt red coffee cups on their table from their successful Wawa run. Bhut, a business and engineering major and an Indian-American at five feet, five inches tall has long layered dark hair and sits with her notebook and a bound printed PDF of her homework. Across the table, with a slightly smaller build, wearing a black and white patched, thick wool sweater is Williams. She’s an Indian native who grew up in Qatar, in the midst of a short study break after a long day of classes.

Williams moved to the United States for college about four years ago, aspiring to become a biomedical engineer and eventually start a company of her own to assist people who may not have enough money to pay for medical supplies. She started at Bucks Community College, then transferred to Drexel University when the school offered her a large scholarship.

Although the scholarship covered much of her schooling, other expenses made it difficult to attain her education. Williams had to make sacrifices. For her, this meant that not buying all the textbooks her courses required.

“Going to the bookstore is almost burdensome for me,” Williams said. “For the past four terms, I have not bought a book.”

Williams is not the only student who has chosen to stop buying textbooks to save money. According to a 2015 study conducted by the Student Public Interest Research Group, Williams is among 65 percent of college age students who opted to save money by not purchasing textbooks.

The price of textbooks is an ever-growing issue in post-secondary education. Over the past 30 years, prices have risen more than 800 percent, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, means book prices are showing a more rapid price increase than both medical services and home ownership.

This growth can be attributed to the market structure of the textbook industry: the customer and provider don’t fill their typical roles.

“[Normally,] the consumer exercises control over the prices by choosing to purchase products that are of good value and the competition forces producers to lower costs to meet demand. In the textbook industry no such system of checks and balances exist,” the Student PIRG noted in its study.

In other words, students like Williams and Bhut, have no control over what book they are assigned. When a professor assigns them a book for a class, they must purchase that book. Their lack of options in these scenarios, makes college students a captive market.

This means that the publishers can increase textbook prices with no fear of repercussion because, ultimately, the students need to find a way to access their book. And with only three major publishers monopolizing 90 percent of the market (Pearson, Cengage and McGraw-Hill) there is little to no competition to induce lower prices.

It’s because of this market-based phenomenon that the average college student, according to the College Board, is expected to spend $1,200 per year on textbooks and supplies. For other schools, especially with higher concentrations of students in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math based majors, such as Drexel, the estimated amount for textbooks for the upcoming year is even higher at $1,400.

Many students cannot afford to spend that much on books alone. As a result, they find other means of acquiring the textbooks. Some rent. Some buy used. Some make use of the books placed on library reserve, if the book is available there. But for most, this means finding or illegally downloading texts online, which might explain why the Drexel bookstore is seeing less traffic these days.

“Students seem to be more and more relying on Chegg and Amazon and buying less at the bookstore,” Joshua Grimes-Avery, a finance junior who works at Drexel University’s bookstore, commented on the subject.

Second-hand sellers and renters like Chegg, Amazon and Half.com have been a powerful force pushing back against textbook companies and have become popular among students trying to save money. According to a report from Student Monitor, just from Fall 2013 to Spring 2015, the number of renters for Amazon and Chegg increased by 48 percent and 50 percent, respectively, while the rate of renters from on-campus bookstores have declined by 20 percent.

When textbook rentals are too expensive, students look for PDF files or other online sources where they might be able to find the information the textbooks contain.

“There are references with information that you could find online for free, any time,” Grimes-Avery continued, also admitting that he does not buy textbooks and prefers to look for keywords online.

Although like Grimes-Avery, many students resort to online, many of them find that it can be too distracting and struggle to retain what they’ve learned.

Williams divulged that there were various difficulties surrounding learning from websites, rather than textbooks paired with student’s courses.

“It’s very short knowledge, you don’t go in depth,” Williams said. “When you study something from the book, you know ‘I need to learn this’. If I don’t understand something, I’ll go back and ask my professor. But online you’re like, ‘Oh, I remember seeing that on a website? But you have no clue [which one] because you looked at 15 [on the subject] from different authors,” Williams continued.

According to Naomi Baron, a professor of linguistics at American University, when students had the option to choose between forms of media, 92 percent of them said they concentrated best in hard copy.

Others, like lawyer and commentator Jonathan Band, think that the shift to online is inevitable.

“I would imagine in 15 years, the number who prefer hard copy would be less than those who prefer online,” Band said, speaking on generational shifts in technology preferences.

Already publishers have begun to notice such shifts and started combining hard copy textbooks with online access, using codes that students buy separately. It’s necessary to buy the access codes to turn in assignments in some classes. Furthermore, some access codes only come with new books, eliminating the option to “buy used” for students, which brings them back to buying from the bookstore. Publishers also know that teachers prefer the online access because it means less to grade, especially when they have lecture halls filled with hundreds of students.

“I think it’s a terrible idea because you’re pretty much paying for your grade. I think if you aren’t financially able to buy the you can’t do your homework and that’s a bunch of your grade that you’re losing. But, I think that professors just find it easier to do it that way because they don’t have to grade the homework anymore. The system does it for them. It’s easier for them to just ask the student to buy [the access code], but I just don’t think it’s too fair,” Bhut said.

There is hope for students like Williams and Bhut, however. Legislators are starting to focus more on the attention being drawn to student debts and higher education.

Since 2013, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has been pushing for the Affordable College Textbook Act and re-introduced the bill to Congress on Oct. 8.

“The Affordable College Textbook Act seeks to expand the use of open textbooks on college campuses providing affordable alternatives to traditional textbooks and keeping prices lower,” according to the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition website.

This would change how students have access to education. Teachers could select the resources they want from a catalog of peer-reviewed open resources, which would then be free online and about $20 to $40 to print, Band explained in a phone call.  

“We may have reached the tipping point. The publishers have been doing everything in their power to delay it. They’ve been lobbying furiously in Congress to delay this from happening, to slow down the process. Eventually, they’re going to lose,” Band noted.

Already, publishers like Pearson have realized they’re at tipping point and started shifting their strategies. Other publishers will do the same if they’re smart, he offered.

As technology and access to textbooks become cheaper and more available, there will be a shift in the textbook industry. However, the process is expected to take its time.