A Textbook Dilemma

It’s a familiar topic at the beginning of a semester: textbook prices are increasing exponentially. The College Board estimates that an average U.S. college student spends $1,200 a year on textbooks — a figure representing an 82 percent increase in cost since 2002. That’s triple the rate of inflation in the United States. USF estimates students will spend $1,600 on textbooks per year, a significant expense for students and their families. By not giving students serious alternatives to expensive books, USF makes college less accessible for lower-income students and families.

 

Like most universities, USF subcontracts the sale of books to a third party, Follett Higher Education Group. Follett sets the prices for books sold on campus and provides a buyback service for students at the end of the semester. However, students expecting to get a fair value when reselling textbooks are routinely disappointed. Follett buys books back at up to 50 percent of their value before turning them around and reselling them as used books higher prices indefinitely.

Textbook prices have soared continually due to the specific nature of the textbook market: few publishers control the majority of the market, and students do not have a say in which texts they are assigned. Five massive educational publishers dominate the market, accounting for 80 percent of all sales. This prevents competition which could potentially drive down prices from entering the market. Further, professors assign book lists without personal financial consequence. Students must buy the books in order to pass the class. This degree of separation benefits textbook publishers, who therefore sell to a captive market with few options.

 

Publishers maximize profits through a number of tactics to undermine the rental market and prevent students from buying and selling textbooks from each other. Publishers revise books frequently, releasing new editions with a new look and slightly altered content every three to four years. Therefore, students are forced to buy new editions, rather than save by purchasing the more abundant used older editions. Customized books are another tactic gaining popularity among publishers to soak up extra profit with minimal investment. Select publishers give professors the chance to choose to add or exclude content and reorder of sections, and therefore can demand a higher price for slightly customized books. This also benefits campus booksellers, forcing students to buy directly from them instead of third parties like Amazon. Customized books are often unbound loose leaf books, which further limits the resale potential of texts for students, as unbound books are difficult to resell and often not accepted for buyback.

 

Bundled books are promoted as offering students a more interactive experience, with online textbooks and activities. Students are required to purchase access codes to online features, which adds to the cost, but become useless after the semester is over. Bundled books can command a higher price while offering minimal increased benefits. A 2010 study by Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs) found that 75 percent of students surveys preferred print to digital textbooks. Despite their unpopularity, publishers continue to push digital texts as access to the texts and online features expire, and books cannot be resold.

 

As a Jesuit school, USF  is committed to fostering the diversity of its student body and supporting current students. This mission seems to be in conflict with its textbook policy: like most schools in the nation, USF’s bookstore sells books to students at higher prices than online competitors like Amazon and Chegg. For example, my math textbook at the USF bookstore rents for $85.30 (used); I rented the same book on Amazon for $28.73. USF’s bookstore does offer price-matching, in which the store will match prices from certain online stores, like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. However, the price-matching terms limit the availability of price-matching to specific situations and books from specific retailers, and is more complicated when books are rented. By not fully mitigating the high prices of textbooks required for courses, USF reduces the ability of students with fewer resources to afford an education. As a school committed to diversity and justice, USF needs to take steps to foster economic diversity by not burdening students with pricy required textbooks.

 

In recent years, the textbook issue has bubbled to the surface, prompting controversy and calls for regulation of the industry. Student advocacy groups across the nation have begun to explore alternate options for textbooks, and some schools have taken steps to innovate and challenge the textbook status quo. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has established an independent bookstore and book exchange for students. A number of universities have begun championing openly licensed textbooks. Openly licensed textbooks are free, online texts that can be downloaded online by anyone. Additionally, openly licensed textbooks can be altered by professors for a more personalized learning experience — without the added cost of customized editions. Textbook exchange groups like Free and For Sale on Facebook are another way students can avoid high prices and find university-specific materials.

 

USF has an opportunity to be a changemaker and stand up for its students by exploring alternatives to the traditional textbook model, like openly licensed materials or a student-to-student book exchange. As a university committed to diversity and justice, USF should take steps to put students over profit.

 

Featured Photo: USF students funnel into the bookstore every fall and winter hoping to score a deal on their mandatory texts. USFCA BOOKSTORE

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