The Textbook Scam

Years ago, I was on the campus of the University of Arkansas and I saw a young woman wearing a t-shirt from my alma mater, a relatively small regional university in Oklahoma. So I went up to her and struck up a conversation. Her story said a lot about the state of higher education.

She’d gotten her B.A. degree in three years. She’d commuted 120 miles round-trip to her classes. She’d posted a straight A record.

But the most interesting thing she told me was that she’d never purchased one textbook during her undergraduate years. But, now that she’d been accepted to the law school at the U of A, she said she was going to begin buying texts.

Her story reinforced something I already believed, that the textbook system for college students is a scam, a way to exploit students. The main exploiters are the textbook publishers, the colleges and universities, and college teachers.

While the rest of the publishing industry is rapidly moving toward e-books, and printed books are losing more and more market share, publishers and colleges stubbornly refuse to give up milking the cash cow of textbooks. Drive by any campus and what do you see? Students hunched over under the weight of backpacks loaded down with heavy and expensive texts. And the books have risen in cost 186 percent since 1986.

Estimates vary, but the cost of college textbooks add about $1,000-$1,500 annually to the already soaring price of getting a college degree.

Who gets all that money? According to the National Association of College Stores, 64 percent goes to publishers, 22 percent to colleges, and 12 percent goes to authors, usually university professors.

The system wrings more money from students by bringing out unnecessary new editions frequently, and refusing to provide the text in much less costly digitized versions. Students are often forced  to stand in long lines at the college bookstore like sheep waiting to be sheared.

According to research groups, college students purchase 77 percent of texts listed as required. They also found that seven out of ten students have skipped buying some texts to save money.

College students have had it with the system. Last year a group of college activists launched a drive called Textbook Rebellion on 40 campuses, protesting high book prices and encouraging students to refuse to buy overpriced books.

During  my college teaching career, I taught at  three community colleges and three state universities. I believe college textbooks could be just about eliminated  entirely. Here’s how: for nearly all college courses, the information exists free on websites on the internet. All the teacher has to do is compile a list of the web addresses and provide them to students. Bingo, textbook not needed. The fact that colleges and teachers have not done this is only proof that they are leeches, bleeding money from students who are already hard pressed to find enough to cover their costs, and forced to borrow so much money to complete a college degree that they are burdened with a huge debt that takes a minimum of ten years to repay.

The truth, sad as it is, is that colleges follow the business model, and look at students as customers, and seem only to be interested in how much money they can separate from them. Instead, colleges should adopt an institutional model, which would have as its goal serving students and trying to make their educational goals as easy to achieve as possible.

It’s time for the antiquated practice of bloated, expensive college textbooks to end.

9 responses to “The Textbook Scam

  1. when i was taking a graduate course a few years ago, i greatly appreciated that the teacher used the projector in the room and put up and showed us how to find previous editions of the text she was using for the class. she also told us that we could easily go back to the 7th or 8th edition for less than half the price of the brand new 10th edition because the changes were irrelevant and only made in order to drive up the cost.

    • Thanks Rich,
      During my last years of teaching, I would recommend to students to go online and buy the text, and tell them that older editions were cheaper and almost the same, even told them they could get texts by different authors because they all pretty much covered the same material. If I were teaching now, I’d eliminate the text entirely. Shifting gears, I’ve figured out you must favor your mother, because how could you have an Italian father and have red hair and freckles? I was red haired and freckled also. So many parallels with you. But my dad was dark haired, brown eyed, and showed his Cherokee blood. But I looked like my mother too. So I’m guessing from both your physical description and temperament that you’re an Italian-Irish or Italian-Scottish mix. Right? Ron

      • possible. however, there are many red haired italians from southern italy, which is where my grandparents were from. moors from north african invaded southern italy and were heavy on the pillage and plunder. southern italians with red hair usually have some “african” way back in their heritage.

  2. In these days of reverse mortgages, etc., universities should be bidding for potential honor students not trying to rape and mug the student body at every available opportunity. I feel abused just writing about it!

  3. To add insult to injury, when we bought used books to save money, we were charged almost full (new book) price. If we sold the books back to the college bookstore at the end of the semester, we only got a couple of bucks, even if we had purchased them new. They get you coming and going….

  4. College Students should resort to Renting Textbooks vs Buying, There are several textbook sites that provide this option, Major Players like Amazon, Half, Chegg have bough back books from Students. In the 2011 to 2012 school year, the average college student spent $600 a semester on textbooks. Students should always select renting close to their campus as the transaction and cost savings are very competitive to Online Textbook sites.

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