NYTimes Editorializes on High Textbook Prices

The NYTimes Editorial Board wrote at piece lamenting the high prices of college textbooks and praising Congressional action to limit them:

College students and their families are rightly outraged about the bankrupting costs of textbooks that have nearly tripled since the 1980s, mainly because of marginally useful CD-ROMs and other supplements. A bill pending in Congress would require publishers to sell "unbundled" versions of the books -- minus the pricey add-ons. Even more important, it would require publishers to reveal book prices in marketing material so that professors could choose less-expensive titles.

I hear the NYTimes editors on the high prices. Like most consumers of higher education, I have spent an obscene amount of money on books that were usually a waste of money. I also don't appreciate the recent tendency of book publishers to milk students by publishing new editions repeatedly or adding bells and whistles.

The state of textbooks is particularly egregious (in my opinion) in neuroscience. Most of the ones I have are either simplistic to the point of uselessness or so comprehensive that only graduate students will ever buy them. (Just because I know people will ask, my favorite of the bunch is Purves et al., Neuroscience which strikes a good balance between depth and brevity.)

What I don't get is why the NYTimes editors believe that government action is appropriate in this case? First, college professors largely determine the textbooks used in their courses, yet I don't see the editors lambasting them for their hard-hearted indifference to their students' financial state. Second, if a book is useless, the students don't buy it. There were plenty of courses in college where I said "the hell with this" and didn't get the book. There were plenty of courses where I bought an older edition -- often despite clear admonitions by the professor not to do so.

Third, the editorial (oddly) goes on to detail the myriad ways that institutions respond to these issues -- all without government intervention:

The bill is a good first step. But colleges and universities will need to embrace new methods of textbook development and distribution if they want to rein in runaway costs. That means using digital textbooks, which can often be presented online free of charge or in hard copies for as little as one-fifth the cost of traditional books. The digital books can also be easily customized and updated.

Right now, textbook publishers are calling the tune. They add as many bells and whistles as they can and pump out new editions as quickly as possible -- as a way of making perfectly good textbooks obsolete. Not every book can be cheap. A specialized text that only a few people know how to write and that reaches a small audience will be costly by definition. But there is no reason for an introductory textbook to carry a price tag of, say, $140 in an area like economics where the information changes little from year to year.

Schools are beginning to balk at outrageous pricing. Rice University offers textbooks for some classes free online and charges a nominal fee for the printed version. A new company called Flat World Knowledge, based in Nyack, N.Y., plans to offer online textbooks free and hopes to make its profit by selling supplemental materials like study guides and hard copies printed on demand.

A study being carried out by the geographer Ronald Dorn at Arizona State University suggests that students who use free online textbooks perform as well academically as students who buy expensive copies from traditional publishers. Colleges and universities should take advantage of these new developments.

There is a lot of information available for free on the Internet that is making the cumbersome textbook only necessary for the extreme connoisseur. Further, whenever I TA courses I try and have relatively comprehensive class notes; many of my professors abandoned the textbook idea in favor of class notes and papers.

If textbook publishers are dumb enough to fail to see the demand for inexpensive and concise textbooks, they are going to lose their business. Technology will continue to advance until -- much like news coverage's conversion from print to Internet -- academic information is virtually free. Why Congress need get involved is beyond me.

Greg Mankiw has one more suggestion:

To me, this reaction seems strange. After all, the Times is a for-profit company in the business of providing information. If it really thought that some type of information (that is, textbooks) was vastly overpriced, wouldn't the Times view this as a great business opportunity? Instead of merely editorializing, why not enter the market and offer a better product at a lower price? The Times knows how to hire writers, editors, printers, etc. There are no barriers to entry in the textbook market, and the Times starts with a pretty good brand name.

Hat-tip: Greg Mankiw


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Textbooks cost me over $700 this semester, and that includes buying used as much as possible. This is a big problem for many students, but I agree that it doesn't really seem like a government issue, it's something that can easily be helped by professors. I have one professor that uses a book that can be "bought" online one chapter at a time, and others use a local printshop to put together bound "coursepacks" of readings that cost less than $15 each.

The reason why Congressional action is necessary is the failing of the "the free market solves every problem" mode of thinking. Simply put, no one in a position to help can make a dime from making life a little easier and fairer for students, so there is no incentive to do so.

Some professors are aware of the problem and try to help, but many (most?) don't give a damn. The universities and the textbook industry are, themselves, trying to screw the students out of every last dirty penny they can, even at the point of saddling them with huge debts.

By Woody Tanaka (not verified) on 29 Apr 2008 #permalink

My final years of college is when the book prices started going up.

Many of the professors had written books of their own that had been refused for publication by the big houses. So they'd print them off in house, or when the technology caught up they'd post the PDF's in their public folders on Exchange.

The book vendors got wind of it and made a huge stink. All of a sudden no more teachers books online for us.

Many of the professors and instructors simply went back to the photocopy method. They'd bring us in the first day of class and tell us not to bother with the book.

I simply don't see this affecting my field of study too much. With the exception of the introductory physics texts, pretty much every undergrad and graduate course in the country uses the same textbooks - none of which come with 'extras' and none of which are available as online versions. We're just going to have to keep buying our Griffiths and Jacksons and Sakuris. When checking out at the bookstore, I have more than once gotten the comment 'Hey, that's the most expensive book we sell!'. Tell me about it.

I loved this post.

I think that professors and universities aren't doing anything because we expect government to step in. Whatever happened to consumers calling the shots?

I've had professors make arrangements so that we've had to spend $0 on textbooks. Others make us by $300 worth of material for a single class.
This is simply bad consumerism.

The best course I ever participated in was a seminar that didn't use a textbook at all. Instead the professor put up a slew of papers every week for us to read, analyze, and then report on, and I got more out of that than any textbook. More often than not I don't buy textbooks because they often don't help and are useless to me afterwards.

So - why not Seed Textbooks? Published as PDFs, for minimal cost, and maybe with links to the relevant blog posts..Could work, Seed Overlords..

If you are an undergraduate at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, you rent your testbooks. You may also have to by a suppilmentary text at the bookstore.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 30 Apr 2008 #permalink

while some professors care about the high cost other don't,
as was testified by some.
To force the publisher to provide the cost of the books
etc, as was proposed, is simply waste of time
and counterproductive.
The only way to force the
publishers reduce the cost is open content.
I can say something from personal experience of someone
who write three textbooks.
My book on ``compressible flow'' have caused the price drop
of close content book in that area.
You can check www.potto.org

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