Milk is more expensive than gasoline, Taylor Swift is more expensive than The Rolling Stones and college textbooks are more expensive than…anything.
Or so it may seem to Southwestern College students who may pay $400 for a single textbook and $1,200 a year on texts.
Textbook prices have skyrocketed since 2002 at an average of six percent every year, outpacing commodities like milk or gasoline. At SWC, books are by far the highest ticket item.
Bill Denton, operating manager of the SWC bookstore for the last 21 years, said the escalating textbook prices hurt everyone.
“Over the last five years, we’ve sold about 30 percent fewer books,” he said. “As a bookstore, we make every attempt to get the books as inexpensively as possible and pass the savings on to the students. I know it doesn’t seem that way when there’s a French book over there that costs $189. I understand how that hurts. We try to make affordable options but sometimes we can’t.”
There are many factors for the meteoric rise in textbook prices, chief among them is the misaligned incentives between the teachers and the students. Economists have referred to textbooks as “The Broken Market.” Unlike most markets, the consumer (students) are not choosing the product and the teachers who are choosing the product do not have to pay for it. These factors create the environment where powerful publishers can artificially raise the price of textbooks without the usual forces of economics.
Research suggests that rising textbook prices are coercing students to gamble with their education. Ethan Senack and The Student Public Interest Research Group found that out of 2,039 students, 65 percent decided against buying textbooks because it was too expensive. Of those students, 94 percent were concerned that not purchasing the textbook would hurt their grade in a course.
Educators say that textbook prices in higher education are a real problem, but agreeing on a solution has been difficult. Professor of Political Science Alma Aguilar said she believes textbooks are integral, but departments need to do a better job of procuring cheaper textbooks.
“Students need exposure to the seminal pieces and some of those are textbooks,” she said. “Once they get to the next level their teachers are going to assume they’ve read some of these classics and if they haven’t they will be behind. We just need to work with the publishing reps more to get better deals for our departments.”
Phil Saenz, a professor of political science, is an outspoken critic of pricey textbooks. He gathers all of the educational materials necessary for his class and posts them on blackboard for students to view free of charge. He said he believes reliance on textbooks should be minimized.
“It’s easy to post your course material on Blackboard, you don’t need to kill any trees and the beauty of it is you don’t need to go through a publisher and you don’t need to charge the students for it,” he said. “I’m trying to take out profit made by publishers and authors.”
Aguilar said most professors want the same thing.
“Teachers are caught in the middle,” she said. “We are trying to make sure that our students are successful, understanding that many have financial hardships. How do you do that in a compassionate and effective way without eroding the integrity of your course, lecture and who you are.”
Of the solutions proposed, electronic textbooks seem to be the easiest to implement and the most cost effective. An electronic textbook costs on average 40-50 percent less than its paper counterpart and allows students to carry their reading materials in the palm of their hand. Denton said most schools are already beginning to make the conversion. Taking the printing and shipping out of the textbook business should reduce prices significantly, he added.
Alejandro Orozco, a philosophy professor, said a complete conversion to digital textbooks is inevitable.
“I think books are obsolete,” he said. “Books are like Blockbuster video, they are on their way out, when given a choice people are going to choose the cheaper medium, and that is digital. Anyone who digs their heels in on the textbook issue is on the wrong side of history.”
Academic Senate President Patricia Flores-Charter said SWC has fallen behind, but is now looking to aggressively address the issue.
“We formed a textbook committee in 2007-2008 to address the issue of rising textbook prices for students,” she said. “Our goal was to draft policy and procedure and take it through the senate. The policy was approved, but the procedure was not. Then Chopra chaos ensued and we got busy doing other things. I originally chaired that committee, so I brought it back this fall. We made some modifications and now the intent is to take it to the governing board.”
Flores-Charter said the policy was greatly influenced by a document put out by the California Academic Senate, which assembled a taskforce that conducted national research looking at other schools and put forth recommendations based on those findings. Some of the recommendations included not requiring a textbook for every class, buying textbooks in bulk with other schools to lower prices and allowing free open source digital materials for instructional use.
Denton said that although SWC is late to the textbook issue, it could learn from others’ mistakes.
“There are no quick solutions,” he said. “As more and more schools start using digital solutions and working out the kinks, those will be things coming to us. Realistically, look forward to it in about 18 months.”