And the prices are only rising.
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Bundling, access codes and greed

The cost of textbooks has grown at a rate of four times faster than inflation in the past 10 years — plus, 65 percent of students have forgone buying a textbook at some point in their college career due to this unaffordability issue. In large part, it is because of semester-sensitive access codes that saddle essential textbooks with zero dollar resalability value and force students to buy them at campus bookstores instead of discount stores.

And why do minor alterations require entirely new editions of textbooks?

It couldn’t possibly be due to some sort of theory overhaul in the field, or information that needs to be integrated into the old texts. Not usually, at least, not every year. It’s most likely because publishers want to render impotent the second-hand textbook market, which would permit students to buy old books from other students who don’t need them any longer. According to a published article titled “College Textbooks Are A Racket” from Henry Farrell, a professor of political science and   affairs at George Washington University, publishers do it “because they can.”

The death of the physical textbook

Due to the virtualizing of curricula — increasingly —  physical textbooks aren’t being used in classrooms. Instead, textbooks are being put behind paywalls. And, although education has always been behind a paywall, the death (albeit slow death) of the physical textbook is perhaps making things worse (although in other spheres online markets increase affordability much more often). This is due to the fact that, while virtual markets can be a tool to create democratic markets, they sometimes do the opposite, at least where academia is concerned. After all, you can’t put up a paywall with a physical copy of a book.

Don’t think that universities could possibly be so cold? Well, four in 10 universities use the access-code methodology, according to a study from USPIRG — especially in introductory courses, where building a foundational education will inform the students’ entire career-competency moving forward. Without these access codes — and bundling —  students would be able to pay one-third of the price they are paying (thanks to online marketplaces for used books). Expiry dates also prevent the securing of educational material for future reference, as well.

Greenfield & others

Some colleges aren’t quite so money-hungry — and it’s a relief to find that a handful, (although a small handful), of universities are adopting the “open education resource” model of curricula. This reduces the cost of educational materials a great deal. But the fraction of universities participating in this open-source material trend is very small.

But some do participate! Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts, for instance, uses open-sources in three out of six required general education courses. This has brought the prices of the textbooks back to reasonable prices — arguably, lower! In fact, textbooks at GCC are one-fifth of the national average ($153 is the national average for a textbook … It’s depressing). According to The College Board, the average student pays more than $1,200 on educational material over the course of just one single year.

An attempt at a change

The government has tried to step in — hoping to legislate the issue. In an attempt to do what they could about the problem, the 2008 Higher Education Act forced publishers to disclose prices beforehand to their professors. This, the legislative branch believed, would cut down on the amount that professors unwittingly bought textbooks that had astronomical sales prices affixed to them. The bill also demanded that publishers debundle many components of courses so that students could buy based on individual needs, without being forced to purchase irrelevant material.

The sneaky basta…

Publishers have wriggled out from underneath their legislation-rocks however and have begun skirting this legislation. The way they do it is by debundling as they are required to — but not at the appropriate bookstores. Basically, incentivizing students who buy the bundle by allowing them not have to drive 100 miles for a darn textbook. Or, even worse, sometimes the student is completely unaware that the debundled version is available at some rinky-dink book supplier down the road from the campus bookstore.

A small movement has begun to provide open-source material — but the movement has only sucked up 6 percent of universities in their vacuum (read: nobody is participating). If this movement picked up steam, much could be accomplished. Just as a “for instance,” it could potentially crack down on the criminal conflict-of-interest that results from professors pedaling their very own books as required reading in their courses.


Open-access course materials are reviewed by peers, are simply modifiable and usually will have textbooks, articles and even sample problems and quizzes included — the very same stuff that the publishers always hide behind paywalls! No access codes, no bundled content, no criminally high pricing and no nonsense. College students would no longer have to pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks that reproduce information that is available for free elsewhere.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colorado, has attempted to introduce legislation twice that would design a national grant program — in hopes of incentivizing university professors to use open-access texts. Sadly, this legislation stalled with the Health and Education Committee.  Before things can change, the powers that be have to allow it to change first. Either that or … Viva la revolución!


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Posted 06.08.2018 - 12:00 pm EDT