University textbook prices rose 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, according to a 2013 study done by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO). Even more shocking? According to NBC’s review of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data: “Textbook prices have risen over three times the rate of inflation from January 1977 to June 2015, a 1,041 percent increase.” It’s clear that textbook prices are on the dramatic rise, but what’s causing this trend, and why does it matter?
Students in today’s college generation have little choice as to whether to take on debt from an education or not. Higher education is essentially the new high school, and is practically a requirement for upward mobility. But higher education comes with a cost. Specifically, an average of $28,950 in student loan debt.
College textbooks are an easy, within-reach way to begin curtailing the current student debt crisis. Why have textbook prices risen so drastically? A lot of the onus falls on textbook publishers, who realized that universities were charging their students more for superfluous accommodations and began doing the same with their textbooks. Publishers use tactics such as new editions, costly bundles, and resale sabotage to push prices up.
Publishers and professors release new editions every three to four years, and sometimes even quicker than that, even though there is no new material to be added. Take for instance a calculus textbook. Publishers create “special” editions specific to universities and regularly create new editions. In these new editions they change the practice problems at the end of each chapter so the student is forced to buy the new book in order to be able to do the homework assignment. These new editions are on average 12 percent more expensive than earlier editions and leave the students with an old edition that has no resale value, thus driving the marketplace supply and demand.
Costly bundles are another reason for skyrocketing textbook prices. Publishers use tactics like selling half of the textbook in print form, bundled with a code that unlocks the other web-only half. This causes students to not be able to resale their textbook after the semester, and restricts students from buying the textbook used, which usually is a way to save money.
Another more recent tactic that publishers are using to raise prices is what’s called “resale sabotage.” Here’s how it works: publishers sell less expensive textbooks upfront, usually in the format of black and white loose leaf pages, bound together by cheap glue. Students do indeed save money upfront, anywhere from a 20 to 50 percent discount, but then are unable to sell the book back for any money whatsoever. Since these textbooks can’t be resold, the market price of the publisher’s normal textbooks continue rise. So, at first it seems like these cheaper quality books are a better deal for students, but is rather a tactic to keep their traditional textbook line increasing in price.
Because of these tactics, textbooks now cost students anywhere from $100 to $400, and sometimes even more, just for one class for one semester. On average students spend anywhere from $8,000 to $11,500 on books and supplies each year. Textbooks are crucial, and of course they shouldn’t be free. Professors and publishers put a lot of work into creating them. But when deceptive practices push the price of a decent college education even further out of reach, it becomes a problem.