Widely Used As Textbooks: Do We Have A Choice?

Given the chance, most any college student will lecture at length about the steep cost of education, including the price of textbooks and books widely used as textbooks.  The typical price of books for one college semester bought through the school store can easily reach $500, and in some cases much more.  This has led to the creation of an old college tradition – watching the jaws drop and the pale faces of the people in front of you in the bookstore line as they bend over and kiss their sweet cash goodbye.  It’s practically hazing, and you know your turn is coming up soon.

So Why Do Textbooks Cost So Much?

Here’s the dirty little secret.  The textbook marketplace in the US does not function using the usual supply-and-demand economic model that we are all familiar with.  Instead, it has been likened to the health insurance marketplace, in which the content (books) are prescribed by the professor or instructor (the doctor) to be used by the student (the patient).  In most cases, the books are paid for by parents or through a loan (the insurance company).  This leads to higher prices for books, because for students they are an essential service and the money must be provided to pay for them.  Think it’s not a fair analogy?  The 2005 report by the General Accounting Office stated that from 1986 to 2004, textbook prices rose an incredible 186 percent, compared to a 3 percent rise in prices in other areas.

So in 2006, The U.S. Education Department studied the college textbook situation and came up with five key reasons for high textbook prices:

  1. Students must buy certain books if they want to excel in the class.  What else could you do, refuse to buy it?  The professor will just have one less person to teach.
  2. As is the case with many industries now, the textbook publishing industry is dominated by just a few companies.  Due to high publishing costs, others just can’t compete with Thomson, McGraw-Hill, Prentice Hall, and Houghton-Mifflin.
  3. College bookstores charge high retail prices and are often designed to make a profit for the university.
  4. Professors often receive copies of textbooks for free in the hopes that they will be used, and therefore may not know how much they cost.  (Some professors need all the price breaks they can get too.)
  5. Some professors who author textbooks might assign them to their classes to increase their royalties.  (You know they’re out there.)

In addition to all this, textbook publishers frequently “update” older books to a new edition, adding in a small section or pictures.  There is usually not much new information, but this means that students can be required to buy the latest edition for a premium price.

Quality yet Affordable Textbook Sources

As a reaction to the textbook pricing dilemma, the more recent trend is to look for alternative sources.  Yes, the internet is once again the great equalizer, and more people are opting to buy their textbooks used online instead of buying them new or through their school.  Books that are widely used as textbooks can be found online that are often of good quality, with a much better price than new books or those purchased through the university.  Thankfully, there are quite a few internet options for finding and buying textbooks.  Here are a few picks.

Amazon.com I know it is now cliché – sporting everything from swimming pools to tweezers, but it is still one of the best places to buy textbooks online because of the vast ability to search and choose from bookstores all around the world.  Some of their most popular books that have been widely used as textbooks are the 8th Edition of Mastering Biology, Biology: Concepts and Connections with myBiology, Managerial Accounting, Principles of Microeconomics, The Art of Public Speaking with Connect Lucas, and Nutrition: Concepts and Controversies.  The latest word at Amazon is that they even RENT textbooks now.  (Woohoo!)

Abebooks.com is another great place to find books that are widely used as textbooks.  Though usually more limited to the United States, this site sometimes finds books and stores that Amazon and other searches do not.  You can find new and used books here.  Half.com, associated with Ebay, is a good place to find cheap used books.  You can often get a great deal here because many of the sellers are individuals like you who are done with the book and would like to make anything they can off of it.

Bigwords.com and Chegg.com are also worth checking out.  BigWords is an interesting site because it will optimize the shipping of your books to get you the lowest price possible.  This site also allows you to sell back your books that are widely used as textbooks for a little extra cash at the end of the semester.  Chegg is good for college students looking for cheap books that they will only use temporarily.  Instead of buying the book, you only rent it for a semester or however long you may need it.  Free shipping is provided for the return of the book.

Another trend worth noting is that many people are now moving to e-books, many of which are widely used as textbooks.  There is some controversy over this though, because of the assumption that students will have plenty of internet access to make use of them.  Most often this is true, but not all students have this access, and some professors are still using them anyway.  They are much cheaper than physical textbooks though, and arguably (depending on who you talk to), this alternative does not take away from the educational value.

Hauling them around is no longer a feat of strength, and in some cases they are available from any internet access point.  The method of viewing e-books is not perfect, however; some people would rather read a physical book than a computer screen.  Tablet computers and e-book readers are a good solution to this, but often students cannot afford these devices in addition to the cost of an ordinary laptop.

Speaking of new trends, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a big tip of the hat to some of the new open education platforms where all e-books and online learning materials are completely free:  Ck12.org (they call them “Flexbooks”), Saylor.org, and of course Khanacademy.org.  (Wave of the future perhaps…?  Don’t get me started!)

Primary & Secondary Education: What’s the Status in the Lower Grades?

In the lower grades, kindergarten through 12th grade, the textbook marketplace has very different yet equally devastating problems.  The students obviously do not buy their own textbooks – the schools do.    The issue here is not price, but content and quality.  It turns out that the lower grade textbooks used throughout the entire country are developed according to the standards of Texas in particular, and to a smaller extent, California and Florida.

This is because these three states are what is known as adoption states.  That means that they buy such a large percentage of the total textbooks needed for the country that publishers end up tailoring their content to suit the particular requirements of the adoption state, usually Texas for grades K-12.  The other states of the nation end up adopting and using the books that are approved by the adoption states.  Therefore, the Texas Board of Education composed of five Democrats and ten Republicans determines the content of the textbooks that the whole country will use.  This has led to some very controversial (and many would say incorrect) interpretations of both science and history, particularly concerning an attempt to omit Thomas Jefferson’s belief in separation of church and state in 2010.  http://truth-out.org/news/item/10188-bill-moyers-messing-with-texas-textbooks

Back to the Books

Anyway, while textbook content issues in the lower grades may have no easy end in sight, at least the issue of price is diminishing somewhat for many college students due to choices available today. There is no longer any reason to buy the most expensive new college textbooks through your university, when most of the books that are widely used as textbooks can be found at much lower prices through an online used bookseller.  If you are instructed to use the latest edition of a certain textbook, ask your professor if it would be OK to use an older edition which is typically much cheaper.  There may be a legitimate reason not to do this, but letting the professor know privately that it is a financial consideration might garner some acceptance.  Either way, it’s worth noting that a bit of shopping around can help save hundreds of dollars on a semester of books, and much more over the course of a college education.

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