When I was a student at the University of Texas in the mid 1980s, the ritual I dreaded the most was my twice yearly trip to the university bookstore to purchase my textbooks for the upcoming semester. I had learned quickly during my freshman year how expensive textbooks were and as the semesters wore on, I became increasingly frustrated and enraged at what I felt was a scam, perpetrated at the expense of poor students who were being coerced into paying inflated prices.
When I complained about the costs, nobody wanted to take responsibility. The campus store manager said they charged only a small markup from what they paid the publisher. The professors claimed there was nothing they could do. Talking to school administrators was a dead-end. The publishing companies themselves had corporate offices located in far away cities and states.
It has been 30 years since I entered university and to my dismay the practice of producing, publishing and selling overpriced textbooks to unwilling and helpless students continues unabated. In fact, the situation today is even worse than it was back then, with students paying exorbitantly high prices for texts,compounding high tuition prices and fees.
Textbook prices have increased a whopping 812 percent since 1978, surpassing the rise in health costs (575 percent), home prices (325 percent) and inflation (250 percent). The GAO, in a 2005 report, found that textbook prices increased 6 percent a year for the last two decades. College students now pay, on average, $1,200 per year on texts. This is unconscionable. The fact that this scam has been going on for so long and that nobody appears willing or able to actually do something about it speaks volumes about the state of education in the U.S.A. Furthermore, the publishing companies routinely charge American students substantially more than students in Canada and the UK are charged for the same text.
The main villain in this drama is the educational publishing industry; the big players are Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, McGraw- Hill , Pearson and Wiley’s. The industry is concentrated and has been undergoing substantial consolidation, reflecting the consolidation in the global media industry. The five largest companies represent 80 percent of the educational publishing market. These companies are doing quite well within this current paradigm; McGraw-Hill’s profit margin was 25 percent, Wiley’s was 15 percent and Pearson’s 10 percent. Taken as a whole, the print publishing business for the education industry was worth over $13 billion last year.
Given these figures, these companies have no incentive to change or alter their practices and students, as usual, are caught in a vice grip. Students must often choose where to cut corners, and that can often mean going without food or being late on rent. With the publishing companies, professors, and universities working within a tradition bound and inflexible structure, nothing will change unless A) students figure a way to become organized and go on a general strike or B) political leaders at the state and national level enact strict laws and guidelines to reign in the McGraw-Hills of this world. Neither seems likely.
Given the extent that the internet has changed so many facets of society, the fact that college students are not allowed, in most cases, to download free content for courses is shameful. There are signs that this is changing, but for poor students, the change cannot come fast enough. Open Text Book, founded by the Open Knowledge Foundation, Flat World Knowledge, Boundless, and Chegg are all examples of this move toward free and open knowledge sharing.
I am a teacher and I use textbooks in my courses. I don’t like textbooks in general. It’s not just that they are boring, inaccurate and written with a corporate slant, but that they are so often completely unnecessary. How did we arrive at this point where learning and education have become so intertwined with the notion of textbooks? Not too long ago, there were no such things and teachers used original source materials and their own minds to educate their students. Textbooks encourage lazy thinking in both professors and students. One way to combat these huge conglomerates is to simply do away with them altogether, whenever possible.