With the costs of college textbooks rising about three times the rate of inflation, students should be happy to see any change that would save them money in this expenditure.
The 812-percent growth in textbook prices is far greater than the percent growth for college tuition and fees over about the same period. Prices have gone up 82 percent in the last decade alone. The average college student is now paying about $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.
The Affordable College Textbook Act
Democratic Senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois have introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act, a bill that “would set up a competitive grant program to support pilot programs at colleges and universities ‘that expand the use of open textbooks in order to achieve savings for students’”.
Open-source textbooks are already in limited use, bolstered by programs like Rice University’s OpenStax that offer a selection of free texts for a limited number of introductory courses. The Gates Foundation is one of its financial supporters.
Franken and Durbin are hoping to speed up the open-source trend. Their bill would set up a competitive grant program to support pilot programs at colleges and universities “that expand the use of open textbooks in order to achieve savings for students.”
Shouldn’t technology already be bringing down the cost of textbooks?
“The dirty secret about textbooks is that they don’t have to be so expensive given the rise of technology,” said Matthew Segal, co-founder of OurTime.org, which endorses the bill….
Academic Publishers will tell you that creating modern textbooks is an expensive, labor-intensive process that demands charging high prices. But as Kevin Carey noted in a recent Slate piece, the industry also shares some of the dysfunctions that help drive up the cost of healthcare spending. Just as doctors prescribe prescription drugs they’ll never have to pay for, college professors often assign titles with little consideration of cost. Students, like patients worried about their health, don’t have much choice to pay up, lest they risk their grades. Meanwhile, Carey illustrates how publishers have done just about everything within their power to prop up their profits, from bundling textbooks with software that forces students to buy new editions instead of cheaper used copies, to suing a low-cost textbook start-ups over flimsy copyright claims.
It seems that college professors would be central players in any move to cut textbook costs. But it’s unclear that anyone has a strong incentive to make books more affordable.
Just as the schools have little incentive to keep their costs down, knowing the bills will be paid thanks to federal guarantees, the publishing industry has even less of an incentive to keep costs under control. Why? Because everyone — even the professors who often profit from royalties from textbook sales — except the student has a monetary incentive to keep things just the way they are.