For starry-eyed freshmen starting their first day, college is surreal. It is usually their first experience in moving out of their comfort zone, exploring the campus and making new friends. The feeling of independence is just too good to be true.
Unfortunately, the optimism is quickly dashed when students begin to purchase required textbooks for their classes. Many college students tragically buy textbooks from the bookstore, while clever ones order them from cheaper third-party sources. Sadly, even on Amazon, textbooks are staggeringly expensive, often ranging from $200-$300.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that textbook prices have increased more than 15 times since 1970, which is three times the rate of inflation. Clearly, there is an underlying economic cause for such an astounding increase.
In a Jan. 13 opinion article for The Wall Street Journal, Craig Richardson provides two explanations for high textbook prices. The first explanation is simple, yet disappointing: Professors aren’t paying attention to prices.
Professors have zero incentive to care about textbook prices, because that burden is carried by the students. Instead, as Richardson argues, professors enjoy the benefits of lecture notes and exam copies given to them by the publishers.
Some professors decide to worsen the situation by producing their own textbooks that are only available in the bookstore. Such instances are common in required 100-level “foundational” courses. These professors enjoy the benefits, while the students are forced to deal with the costs.
The 300-level and 400-level classes are usually more generous than the 100-level courses. The reasons are clear: smaller class sizes, more advanced topics and greater academic independence. As such, the textbooks are usually cheaper or even optional. Not surprisingly, students begin to learn the material from these upper-level courses.
Richardson’s second explanation is the easy access to financial aid. Rather than paying the costs upfront, students defer the costs in their financial-aid package, planning to repay them in the future. The burden is therefore minimized over the long term.
Consequently, a positive feedback loop arises. Professors can select whatever textbooks they like without having to pay for them. In turn, students defer the costs to reduce the burden. Textbook prices are unchecked and continue to rise rapidly.
Wary that there may be additional factors behind high textbook prices, I forwarded Richardson’s article to a friend majoring in economics. To my dismay, he pinpointed a commonly used resource: secondary markets.
The students’ demand for textbooks is inelastic, as they are required by their course syllabi to purchase them. Buying from the bookstore is generally avoided due to their exorbitant prices. As such, the best option is to look for cheaper alternatives elsewhere.
Amazon is one of the most commonly used resources to find cheaper textbooks. Students may also prefer to look for other third-party companies, rent textbooks, reserve books in the library, order e-books, or even download them illegally. High textbook prices therefore initiate the growth of secondary markets.
Aware of the secondary markets, publishers and textbook authors fight back. Their cunning approach is to prosecute the secondary markets for the loss of profits. Fortunately, from The Economist article mentioned previously, a 2013 Supreme Court decision strengthened the idea that Americans can buy and resell copyrighted material acquired legally, even if it is obtained from abroad where prices might be cheaper.
Effectively disarmed legally, publishers are compelled to increase textbook prices to redeem profits lost to the secondary markets. Textbook authors respond by producing newer textbook editions with only minor changes. Some professors are kind enough to tolerate older and cheaper editions; others, not so much.
Are secondary markets really causing high textbook prices? After all, students resort to them because of high textbook prices. If anything, secondary markets amplify the price increase, while the driving causes are delineated by Richardson’s explanation.
Even more alarming, some professors in introductory courses reap monetary rewards from publishers by utilizing a common tactic: online homework. This approach is very beneficial for professors since they aren’t overwhelmed to grade hundreds of homework assignments.
Yet, there’s a caveat. For students to access online homework, they must register for an account on the publishers’ website, which, in turn, requires an access code. How do you obtain an access code? By purchasing the newest edition of the textbook, which is also the most expensive.
So what can we do about high textbook prices? For students, the best possible option is to utilize the secondary markets to obtain the cheapest alternative. The decision between buying and renting requires careful cost-benefit analysis, a skill critical for long-term success.
Professors can help alleviate the price burden by selecting books that best supplement their lecture material, not necessarily those with the highest quality. They should also be willing to tolerate older editions of textbooks, unless substantial changes were made.
As such, students can benefit from learning and enjoying the material without having to worry about the added costs to their ever-increasing tuition.
Badri Karthikeyan is a senior biology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected].