This coming week classes will begin at the local university, and with those classes come expenses, tuition, fees, room and board, and, of course, textbooks. Except, unfortunately, more and more students aren’t buying textbooks.

The dean of the university library cited a study that found as many as half the students in college classes, especially classes that required expensive textbooks, never purchased those textbooks – and unsurprisingly those who failed to purchase textbooks had lower grades and a greater chance of failure. But why don’t students purchase textbooks? The usual reason students give is cost. The cost of textbooks for the “average” student runs from $500 to $800 a year, depending on the college and the subject matter, and in some fields the costs can exceed $1,000.

But are those costs unreasonable historically? I still have a number of my college texts, and some of them actually have the prices printed on them. I ran those numbers through an inflation calculator and discovered that, in terms of current dollars, I paid far more for books in 1963 than students today pay on a book for book basis, and back then we were required to read far more books than most college students read today.

Today’s student priorities are clearly different, and for whatever reasons, a great number of them aren’t buying textbooks [cellphones and videogames, fast food, but not books]. For this reason, the local university is promoting “open texts,” i.e., textbooks written by professors or others and placed without cost on the university network for students to use. Not surprisingly, students love the idea. It costs them nothing, and they don’t even have to go to a bookstore.

The idea bothers me, more than a little. And no, I’ve never written a textbook, and despite what people claim, those professors I know who have didn’t write them to make money. They wrote them because what they wanted their students to learn wasn’t in the available existing books. The royalties and/or fees they received usually barely reimbursed them for their time and effort in creating the text. So how did textbooks get so expensive? First, they’re not that expensive, given the time and expertise it takes to create a good text – and all of the diagrams, tables, and the like are expensive to print [even in electronic books they take a lot of time and effort]. Second, because fewer and fewer students are buying the textbooks, the unit costs of producing them go up.

Maybe I’m just skeptical by nature, but so far with each year that the internet expands, the percentage of accurate information declines. With all these professors producing these “open texts,” where exactly is the quality control? Where is the scrutiny that at least produces some attempt at objectivity? When a textbook is printed, it’s there in black and white. It can’t be altered and anyone who wants to pay the price can obtain it. Just how available are these so-called open texts to outsiders? Against what standards can they be measured? Is there any true protection against plagiarism?

I have yet to see these questions being addressed. The only issue appears to be that because students think textbooks are too expensive, they aren’t buying them, and those that aren’t buying aren’t learning as well. So, the university answer is to give them something to read that doesn’t cost them anything.

Yet I can’t dismiss the textbook problem. It does exist, and part of the problem is also the typical college bookstore. They’re under pressure not to lose money. So what do they do? They only order the number of books that a course sold the previous year or semester. Even when half the students in a class can’t get books and want to pay for them, too many bookstores can’t be bothered, and students get screwed, especially the poor but diligent ones for whom every dollar counts, and who can’t afford to rush to the bookstore immediately.

On more than one occasion, my wife the music professor has had to order opera scores personally [and pay for them] and then sell them to students [since it’s rather hard to learn the music and produce an opera if the singers don’t have the music to learn] so that her performers all had the music. And, of course, doing so is totally against university policy. But then, cancelling a scheduled opera because the music isn’t available isn’t good, either, and copying the scores is not only against copyright law, but also runs up the copying budget.

But this is what happens when the “business model” of the bookstore meets the realities of publishing costs and students who are either unwilling or unable to afford textbooks.

10 thoughts on “Priorities?”

  1. Lourain says:

    When I was a college student (back in the Stone Age) instructors required that we learned material from textbooks as well as from lectures. One instructor never lectured at all (Genetics class)…question-and-answer sessions, then tests.
    I cannot imagine passing math or science classes, with their density of information, without textbooks. I would have failed without my textbooks.
    Many textbook publishers are producing ebooks as well as hard copies. The ebooks do have some advantages…fewer back problems from carrying your textbooks everywhere. Unfortunately, the ebooks are often as expensive as the hard copies.

  2. Tim says:

    My experience from studying physics in the UK – also back in the Stone Age – was that those lecturing us were pretty poor at comunication, often standing with their back to the students whilst writing on the board,and so talking to it as well. They we were generally only lecturing because it was part of their contract of tenure: what they really wanted to do was research, publish and attend conferences.

    I graduated in spite of the poor quality of communication. It was all down to using text books and the best ones were usually those which reinforced the message from different angles.

  3. Chris says:

    I suspect part of the problem is a general pinching of students’ budgets and what they are expected to pay for.

    Tuition has increased substantially, without a proportional increase in aid. Student housing costs have also increased (largely because of the amenities that colleges think they have to offer but many students don’t use or want to pay for). In many (but not all) cases parents pay for cell phones and service.

    All of this while the value of the minimum wage hasn’t kept pace with inflation, so even if the students are working in a work-study program the benefits aren’t the same as what they used to be. So given that their required expenses have increased substantially more than their incomes, and they have to pay the tuition fees regardless of what books are required, books become the “required” expense that is less required than other things.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Last I heard, most college bookstores will buy back books that are still in use, and are in good condition and unmarked. Given turnover in what’s current, one can never expect to sell back everything, but it’s an option for the students to control costs, although some textbooks are indeed worth keeping in some circumstances.

    Airline pilots used to carry perhaps 30 lbs of charts, checklists and aircraft documentation, airport/facilities directories, etc. Most now carry a tablet with all that preloaded, which is far lighter, and more easily kept current. (hopefully, a single set of the more essential documentation is kept in the cockpit in printed form, for redundancy/emergencies) The situation of students is not dissimilar; if I were one these days, I’d certainly use ebooks as much as possible, not only because they’re far more convenient, but also because they’re searchable, and notes and highlighting don’t actually deface them.

    High quality information (if not necessarily the most current, i.e. one can’t eliminate the need for expensive professional journal subscriptions entirely, although e.g. may have preprints) is available online, but it takes practice to find the best and most reliable that’s freely available, esp. if searching for info in a field where one possesses little expertise. Even for articles in professional publications, there are things to watch for: rigorous experiment design and statistical methods, controls, and, of course, who is funding it and may stand to benefit from the conclusions. With information where the provenance and peer review may be less apparent, more burden of avoiding undue credulousness falls on the person searching for it.

    For those whose research is done not as students nor a business expense, knowing how to obtain good (if not quite leading-edge professional) results on a budget of zero dollars and limited time is a must, unless they want to get cheated or even harmed by worthless goods and services. And should they consult professionals, it helps them ask better questions, and evaluate the performance of those they’re paying.

  5. Nathaniel says:

    I’m 30, so a ways out of college, but I can tell by some of the above comments that I’m a lot closer to college age than many other commenters.

    Yes, you’ll do better if you buy the textbooks. (Most) everyone knows that, even students. And yes, some courses extensively use the textbooks; if you don’t have them you’re likely to fail quite miserably.

    On the flip side, some courses only barely touch the books at all; the professors were required by their department to assign a book but they don’t care to use one, or they’re only used in ways that accommodate borrowing/sharing with other students.

    And as for selling it back to the campus bookstore/3rd party buyer- sure, you can with basically every book that isn’t a 3-ring binder with printed pages (sadly not as rare as it should be). But given that books by major academic publishers update every single year (with minor changes at best), you’re looking at selling your $200 book for $20. So if you’re spending $500+ on books, you really can’t expect to make a significant percentage of it back 3 months later.

    So, as much as everyone would like to chalk it up to “kids these days” not being as wise as former generations, it’s really just a balancing of incentives- to some students, saving several hundred dollars on books is worth it, if they judge (correctly or not) that they can get “good enough” grades without personally owning a copy of the book, and just borrowing from others when they need to. Statistically, they’re more likely to be wrong, but it’s not as obvious a result of the calculation as perhaps it was in the 60s.

  6. Alan Naylor says:

    I didn’t attend college, the first time, in quite the Stone Age, but more than twenty years ago we had to have our text books. My professors didn’t refer to the book very much but would often lecture, write on the board and expect you to take notes as they expanded on things from the book or focused on topics they felt were important. You needed the books to pass. My books, then, were a few hundred a semester. Something that was difficult for a cash strapped teen to come up with.

    College again a few years after that for my first bachelors I didn’t have the funding issues and I bought all my books, and the VHS’s for the distance learning courses. I probably spent a thousand or so a year on materials.

    Fast forward to today, when I am going for my second bachelors. I spend almost three grand on books each year. That’s a great deal of money for something I am not likely to ever use again, not for reference purposes or any practical application after I finish the class. Many students I speak with refuse to get the books because of cost and general uselessness of the text after the fact. The sell back option just doesn’t recoup enough of the money.

    I think it’s also worth noting how many professors assign a book, as mentioned earlier, because they’re required to but then never once crack the cover. I’ve had numerous classes like that.

    The other side of the problem is professors informing the students of books. I started classes for the fall semester yesterday. 3 of my 6 classes do not have a published book list. You don’t find out till you get to class what the book(s) are for the course. My Networking class has five books the professor plans to use. Now he’s not going to teach from any one of them, but will use his hand written notes from the yellow legal pad, but if you want to really learn networking you’ll probably want most of those books. How can you expect the student to be prepared and ready to succeed if the day of class arrives and you still have no published book list? In today’s modern media easy access and online everything world of students, this should have been simplicity itself. The professors have known who was teaching what course since May (Or at least I’ve known what I was taking, when and by whom since May), why could the book list and syllabus not already be prepared? Many of the courses are exactly the same, semester after semester, there should not be major changes to book list or syllabus.

  7. Daze says:

    I once got a required reading textbook for an economics course from the Fisher Library (Uni of Sydney). It had to be recovered from the reserve stacks. Careful perusal of the dates of the two previous times it was taken out revealed that the only other person to have ever read it was the lecturer.

    1. Daze says:

      PS: it was long out of print, so the library was the only source.

      PPS: it was very good – I learnt a lot from it.

  8. Trish Henry says:

    I agree that the general cost of school has gone up which is a lot more money when books are separated out. I live in Califonia. We have three levels of state-run colleges. The University of California is the top tier and most expensive (i.e. UC Berkeley, UCLA, etc) followed by the state colleges (San Francisco State University, Merced, etc.) then the most numerous, the two year Community College. In the 1980s the cost per unit at the community colleges was free. The only cost was books, lab fees, and parking. I took classes every summer for transfer units. I think in 1987 or 1988 they started charging $5 per unit. I just looked it up and now they charge $46 per unit. It may not sound like a lot, but going from $0 to $46 in 30 years is something. 15 units going from $0 to almost $700 per semester. Housing costs, creating more campuses or buildings on a campus, changing over libraries to include digital and computers, etc., basically the cost of doing business if you’re a school, that all adds up. I know I was lucky because I didn’t have the really expensive books.

    Ok, I’m rambling a bit but just like our costs of livings have gone up while our realities wages haven’t, so too the cost of education have gone up and the ability to pay for it has not.

    I do not envy people trying to go to school today.

  9. Matthew Runyon says:

    Just to clarify, everyone does realize that there are options besides buying books, yes? People rent books, or do what are essentially book-shares with people who have the class on different days and just schedule their studying and homework. Or, and this is really common, use an older edition of a book. Most lower division math, and quite a lot of other subjects, haven’t changed substantially in decades, and older books work just fine aside from the precise practice questions, which are easy enough to grab from others.

    Also, while individual textbooks may be roughly equivalent in price, studies of textbook prices over time show that the price of textbooks has not only increased substantially faster than inflation, but faster than even tuition. See here, and here

    I’ve also had professors heavily hint (or outright tell us) that the only reason the book edition was different from one year to the next is that the head of the department wrote the new edition. Those professors frequently would assign questions, and give the alternate question assignments from at least the previous edition, if not the last few previous editions.

    Open source textbooks are being funded by groups, included school districts, like the one in my home town, that are tired of being forced to by new editions of basic information that hasn’t changed in (in some cases) centuries. There are crap ones, of course, but there are guidelines, reputable sources, peer-reviews, and formal editing processes like MERLOT. I can assure you that people are addressing all the concerns you raised, and have been doing so.

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