The Story Behind the High Cost of Textbooks

Here’s a question any college student could probably answer: What category of items have increased in price at nearly quadruple the rate of most finished goods? If you guessed “textbooks,” you’re right! Averaging $900 per year and adding 20% to already rising tuition costs, textbooks are a significant part of the cost of higher education.

You probably don’t need to be convinced that it’s a problem, but you may be wondering why the prices are so high. Chalk it up to a few tricks the text book publishers have up their sleeves.

Needless New Editions

The price of a new edition is usually 1½ times the price of the previous edition. With such a high price tag, one would hope that publishers would be cautious about needlessly making new editions. However, more than 3 out of every 4 college faculty asked attest to the fact that those pricey new editions are seldom justified.

One glaring example is a book called Physics for Scientists and Engineers, published by Thomas Learning. A detailed comparison between the 6th edition and the 5th edition reveals little change in content. The additions that were made, such as a few new problem sets and technological tools, could have easily been added as a supplemental booklet, rather than an entirely new text.

Bogus Bundling

Maybe you’ve noticed an increasing number of text books coming with CDs, workbooks, or other ancillary materials. Such bundles often drive up costs by 10-47 percent, with little academic benefit to students. (Over half the faculty surveyed said additional items included in such bundles were hardly ever used.) Often, when bundled books are available, unbundled versions are remarkably MIA. So instead of providing another option for students, they merely limit students’ choices to a pricier package, adding to the gold in publishers’ coffers.

Attack on Americans

You might assume this kind of textbook trickery was indiscriminate, but it actually targets American students more than their international peers. A difference of 20-200%, disfavoring the US, can be seen when surveying books listed on both Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Publisher websites make this anti-American pricing obvious, as well, including that of Thomas Learning, whose books cost 72% more in the US than in other countries. The same physics book mentioned above was listed at $135 in the U.S. but only $73 for students elsewhere.

So what’s the answer to all of this? Aside from transferring to an African University, it seems there’s not much you can do if you have to buy a brand new book. But at least now, you know why you’re paying such a high price.

(This information comes from a study that took place from 1994 to 2005, by the state Public Interest Research Groups.)

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