In the Blog
Stopping Textbook Tyranny
Illustration: Saul Freedman-Lawson
Once upon a time, there was a tradition at the beginning of every college/university term: students would descend on their campus bookstores, syllabi in hand, and walk out with bags full of heavy, expensive textbooks. Maybe they got lucky and found used copies of the books they needed or ran into another student selling their books from last term, which eased the financial burden slightly. Still, they were usually out hundreds of dollars. At the end of the semester, the student would sell their books back to the bookstore, or to others at their school, but they’d only recover a fraction of what they spent.
The high cost of textbooks added significantly to students’ school bills and debt. There was nothing they could do; they needed the books to read the material and pass their classes. Sometimes their professors would expect them to bring the books to class, and they’d be penalized if they didn’t have them. Every now and then there would be a professor who, understanding just how much these textbooks cost, would assign reading material that was less expensive; perhaps only a paperback book or two. These professors were, however, few and far between.
As time rolled on, students finally began to free themselves from textbook companies’ high prices. They realized that when publishers put out new editions of books on subjects that were not changing – say, basic language courses, ancient history or elementary chemistry - all that may have changed were some fonts and images. Students went online to find cheap older editions of the books they needed. The savings were sometimes great: the current textbook might cost $200, but an earlier edition of the same book might be $20. Students returned to those websites to sell their used books at the end of the term. Many companies began to offer students the option to rent instead of buy, and they saved even more money. Instead of buying anthologies with classics, students read public domain books for free at Project Gutenberg and Archive.org. Other students pooled their money and shared copies of books.
Suddenly, the textbook industry found that they couldn’t get every college student to give them thousands of dollars every year. Students had options, and they were using them.
So the industry turned to college professors and administrators to swing the advantage back to them.
They got professors to embrace their shiny websites, where students could sign in and do quizzes and assignments for online classes. Most universities provided Web portals for their Internet-based classes, but hey, those required professors to actually set up quizzes and study pages. Why not just let the publishers’ websites take care of it all? It meant that students essentially had to pay twice for their online course: tuition to the school plus the access code fee to the publisher, but so what? And the best part for those textbook companies: students would be stuck paying whatever price they set. After all, it was impossible to shop around for a better price or rent an access code. Codes could only be used by one person, so they couldn’t be shared or resold, either. Every single student was forced to pay whatever inflated price the publisher set.
The publishers also extolled the virtues of custom textbooks compiled especially for each professor’s course. Again, these were pretty impossible to find on the secondary market. Students had to buy them from either the college bookstores or the publishers’ websites, and they were at the mercy of inflated pricing. They were also much harder to resell.
And many professors have fallen for it. They help textbook publishers perpetuate their tradition of exploiting and overcharging students.
The cost of college textbooks continues to rise. In Canada, it is estimated that the annual cost of textbooks and supplies is between $500 and $1200. In the USA, the average student spends around $1200/year. That means that after four years of school, that student is out $2000 - $4800.
There are those who will proclaim that buying expensive textbooks is an expected part of university studies, and that students just need to accept it. There are others who will shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, they’ll just have to work a few more hours.” Both stances are fairly callous. In order to pay for a semester of textbooks, a student with a $10/hour job would need to work between 60 and 70 hours after taxes. Many traditional and non-traditional students already live paycheck to paycheck and struggle to pay for housing, food and other necessities, so this is especially untenable.
In addition, do schools need to continue to support a harmful status quo, simply because it’s always been the custom? It ignores the fact that much of the material could be found elsewhere for less money and that publishers use aggressive tactics, such as selling access codes and custom books, to drive prices higher. Their actions don’t benefit students; they benefit the bottom line.
The websites are useless.
Publishers loudly crow that their special websites increase pass rates by about 10%. They never mention how many students end up dropping the class every semester because it is now completely unaffordable, or how much of a hardship those high prices present.
I’ve used a few of these publishers’ shiny websites. They’re fairly useless, and there’s nothing on them that a professor couldn’t recreate on her own on the Internet portal at her school. The human biology website I was required to use, for instance, had slow-moving Flash pages, quizzes directly from the textbook and diagrams with typos. The finance website had quizzes that again were straight from the book. There was no reason I should have had to spend nearly $100 to access those websites. I didn’t gain any advantage, and the websites wasted time that I could have spent studying in a way that benefited me more.
They put lower-income students at a disadvantage.
In many online or hybrid classes, tests are open-book and students are allowed to use their notes and textbooks. However, many of these same classes use software like Exam Guard, which locks access to anything on the computer other than the test. Thus, students who can afford the physical text have a distinct advantage over those using e-books. The former can access their textbooks during open-book tests; the latter cannot.
Studies have also shown that students retain more from reading physical books than e-books, so again, students who can afford the former have an advantage.
What about students who cannot afford a computer at home? The access code websites put them at a special disadvantage because they don’t always work well on mobile devices.
Oh, and remember those “useless” test questions from the publisher? Those test banks can be breached and the questions can be leaked and sold, which facilitates cheating and compromises academic integrity in all sorts of ways. It gives yet another advantage to students who can afford to purchase the answers.
Financial aid doesn’t always cover it.
Paying for access codes and custom textbooks equals falling further into debt for many students. Financial aid doesn’t always cover it; some students receive assistance that is paid directly to their schools for tuition and fees. When students do receive aid that could be put toward their books, it doesn’t always arrive at the beginning of the term. Thus, for many students, especially those living paycheck to paycheck, the only way to pony up that $500 is to put it on a credit card.
They impede students’ progress.
For students who just cannot afford a mandatory access code or custom textbook, their only option might be to drop the class. Since students usually don’t find out about the required books until the term has started or shortly before, it’s often impossible for them to find a replacement course. That has the potential to impede their overall academic progress or drop them below full-time student status, which might have negative repercussions for health insurance or financial aid.
Much of the information they contain can be found elsewhere for much less money… or free.
I’ll never forget my 19th-century American literature course. All the books we were reading - Moby Dick, The Scarlet Letter, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and several others - were public domain. It would probably have cost us less than $15 to assemble the list at a used bookstore or print the books from Project Gutenberg. Instead, the professor required us to buy an anthology that cost well over $100 and haul it to class every week. It was completely unnecessary.
Regular novels and nonfiction books are more affordable than textbooks. In addition, there are many websites offering legal open access or public domain material that is free to use, print and include in course packs. Archive.org and Project Gutenberg both have public domain books, including many valuable texts from the 19th and early 20th century that are out of print and difficult to find. Rice University’s OpenStax and British Columbia’s BC Campus: Open Ed have open access textbooks. The Directory of Open Access Journals has articles from peer-reviewed journals that are free to use. MIT freely provides the course materials and lectures for many of their classes.
Expensive e-books and access codes are rented, not purchased.
Many students divest themselves of all their textbooks at the end of every term. However, there are always a few “keepers,” and students might hang onto them for a lifetime. Sometimes one can use the same textbook for several different classes, too.
When a student has an e-book or access code, that’s impossible. One of the catches with most e-books is that they’re licensed, not purchased. Some can only be used on a few devices. Access codes are only valid for a limited period of time, too. If a student needs to repeat a course or takes a second class that uses the same materials, they have to fork over more money to buy another code or e-book.
The bottom line: when professors require custom books and access codes, they help perpetuate the textbook publishing industry’s exploitative practices.
They’re propping up ridiculously high prices and contributing to the devastating levels of debt that most college students face today. And yes, this particular point is on them, because they usually have the ability to choose their course materials.
Some professors already get this. They’ve expressed their displeasure with high textbook prices and worked to find alternatives. In my personal experience, those have been the best courses. They’ve been the classes where the professors have created challenging assignments, fostered in-depth discussions, and used a wide variety of inexpensive materials to supplement their lectures. They have required their students to think critically to pass, instead of just parroting back the textbook’s content.
Professors can’t do anything about the high cost of tuition, housing, or the various and sundry fees associated with college in Canada and the USA. In many cases, however, they still can ensure that they don’t add to the problem of student debt by being mindful with their textbook and website choices.
How Professors Can Help
- Do not use websites run by textbook publishers, etc. which require access codes. $80 might not be a lot of money to you; for a student it might be devastating.
- Allow students to use older editions of textbooks, if it’s at all possible. For a subject with rapidly changing information, such as oncology or government policy, this might not be possible. However, for many classes it might be perfectly doable.
- Ensure that at least one copy of the textbook is on reserve (i.e., can’t be checked out) in the school library, and inform your students that it’s there. Write it on the syllabus so they remember. Some students who can’t afford to buy the book really will go to the library every week to read and study from it.
- Do not require students to purchase custom textbooks.
- Use non-textbook tools when possible, such as individual novels or non-fiction books and professor or department-created material.
- When textbook vendors come calling, let them know that you feel the high prices are unacceptable.
- Encourage one’s department and/or school to be mindful of textbook and access code prices and reduce costs for students.
- Consider using open access textbooks.
How Students Can Speak Up
- Talk to your professors, department heads and student government about textbook prices and their impact on you and your fellow students.
- Write an article in your student newspaper or blog about the personal impact that high textbook prices have had on you and your budget.
- Ask your professors if they will allow students to use older editions of the required textbook.
- If you have to withdraw from a course because the textbook or access code is too expensive, let the professor know exactly why you’re dropping. They might be defensive or angry, but the more students let them know there’s a problem, the more inclined they might be to listen.
- If you encounter a professor who assigns custom textbooks or access codes, let other students know about it – write a review on Rate My Professors and note those book/website prices. You don’t need to be accusatory or go on the attack; you can simply write, “Professor Z requires a $___ access code for class.” If someone has fair warning before they register for a class, they might be able to make an informed decision to take another course instead.
- Ask your professors and academic departments to consider using open access textbooks and other free materials.