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.