Would the proposed Affordable College Textbook Act cut costs for students?

by Grace

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.

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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….

The reasons for the high cost of college textbooks have been the subject of much debate.

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.

Related:  Going to all-digital textbooks saves money for private high school students (Cost of College)

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8 Comments to “Would the proposed Affordable College Textbook Act cut costs for students?”

  1. Textbook costs are a really complicated problem. Faculty have less control than you might imagine, largely because of lack of alternatives. The prices also vary a lot by discipline. In computer science it is relatively easy to keep costs down because there are lots of trade books that cover very advanced topics. O’Reilly is a great resource. The only problem is that they are written for practitioners, which means that the language may be more terse and densely written than typical undergrads are used to.

    But I have to teach a healthcare IT course, and when I looked at the prices there, I nearly fell over. And there are NO alternatives. The medical publishers really have a lockhold on the market.

    I don’t want to go textbook-free for a number of reasons. One is that students need to practice reading technical material. Another is that if I don’t have a textbook, I will have to waste my lectures transferring basic information rather than concentrating on problem solving. Some people claim that the information is simply to be found on the Internet, but I don’t have good luck with that. A lot of sites are just plain erroneous, and most others are written for people with a lot of technical background, not for students. There is very little explanation and no examples.

    Politicians have no clue and should stay out of it. We now have that ridiculous law that mandates that we have to post textbooks when the students start registering. The problem is, students start registering in March for September courses. I usually don’t even know what I will be teaching until a week before registration opens – not enough time to research and choose books in a cutting edge topic. That law is largely ignored, as far as I can tell.

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  2. Your comment sheds light on what does indeed sound like a complicated situation.

    I’m not sure about college courses, but I know that I usually oppose the lack of textbooks in K-12 schooling. The failure to use textbooks results in what appears to be a mish-mash of materials cobbled together by teachers. I sense the situation there is equally complicated, what with frequently changing curriculum and budget issues.

    “Politicians have no clue and should stay out of it. ” — That’s my general view on many issues.

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  3. There are things that faculty can do—like using trade books, or using older editions of textbooks so that students can buy used copies. I have experimented in one course with using an on-line free text, with mixed results (but there isn’t a better hardcopy text available either—the class doesn’t match exiting books very well).

    See http://gasstationwithoutpumps.wordpress.com/2012/08/31/all-about-circuits-a-possible-supplemental-text/ As it turned out, I had over-estimated the math ability of the students, and All about circuits, which I thought would be too elementary, was about the right level, and Wikipedia articles were too difficult.

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  4. gasstation — It looks as if it can take a lot of extra effort to find good textbooks that are not expensive. I can see where some professors do not or cannot take the time to do this.

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  5. Finding any usable textbook is difficult for courses that are not cookie-cutter copies of standard courses. Limiting oneself to affordable texts makes it even harder. I did look at one electronics book that was $97 new and $60 used, but it was 23 years out of date—forever for electronics parts, which it spent a lot of time on. The authors have been promising an update “next year” for over a decade. So even choosing old classics does not always result in low prices.

    Another book I looked at is $35–50 for 3rd edition, $160 for 4th edition, but it did not have exactly the right content—it would have been suitable for a course that came *after* the one I was teaching.

    The free online book I used is not great (the homework exercises are particularly poorly done), but was not much worse than a dozen books all priced over $100.

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  6. It isn’t “not taking the time”. It is that they don’t exist. And this is no better illustrated than in the healthcare market. Try finding an open source textbook for advanced nursing or pharmacy students! In healthcare informatics, even the introductory books cost way too much. For my second semester course, I have a choice of several tomes aligned to the AHIMA standards, which all cost around $300. Or there are a couple of smaller textbooks that have gaps, but it doesn’t matter so much for us because we don’t have or want the accreditation in that area. But those books, IMHO, are still overpriced at $150 for a relatively slender paperback. The classic book in the area, Biomedical Informatics by Cimino and Shortliffe, goes for around $100 and is a good book. But it is aimed at graduate students – there is no way that my freshmen could wade through this.

    The problem is actually a market failure problem, and is related in some ways to the issues with high priced journals. In both cases, the market is controlled by a few publishers who have massively consolidated in the past decade, and because the products are highly specialized, and only purchased by a relatively few people each year, there is no reason for lower cost alternatives to appear.

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  7. With these highly specialized texts in particular, it seems as if there’s no relief in sight.

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  8. But the problem is, once you get past the gigantic 100 level survey courses, most college courses are pretty specialized, at least from the viewpoint of the publishers. I just don’t see a lot of upstart lowcost publishers rushing to grab the market for say, operating systems textbooks. If there were money to be made, I am sure we would see these upstarts, so I suspect there just isn’t a lot of money to be made.

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