May 20, 2020
Back when Earth was still cooling down from its formation, I went to college. One of the biggest and most annoying expenses I faced was the cost of textbooks. One particulary nasty outlay came from an art history course I took (so lovingly referred to by us as Art in the Dark). The text was Janson's History of Art, a huge coffee table-size volume that has since morphed into a multi-volume set, selling on Amazon for about $150. Yikes.
Anyway, since I needed food money more than glossy van Gogh, I found a copy (then only one volume) in my local library and managed to keep it out for most of the 10-week term Penn State invoked at that time.
Of course, the local library didn't have many of the books I needed and I had to fork out quite scarce cash for a significant number of other texts over the years (some of which I have kept for reference). How foolish I was after a term's end when I thought that the Penn State bookstore would help me out by buying back some of these arcane texts, such as those I needed for History and Archeology of South Central America (I still doze off just reading that course title). Imagine my delight when I got three dollars for a pristine $40 text (opened maybe twice)!
In any event, having put two kids through college (with my wife's calming support), I am familiar with the modern-day cost of college textbooks. That's why I was intrigued with a story on the Consumerist.com site, which has become one of my favorite places to hang these days:
Rather Than Buy Them
The college textbook racket is a cruel exploitation of a captive market, and book prices seem to rise faster than Google stock.
In my day we just bought the books we were told to buy and were grateful when the bookstore handed us back pennies on the dollar during end-of-semester buybacks. But now rental sites such as Chegg, BookRenter and CampusBookRentals are there to help today's whippersnappers bypass the process and become only marginally screwed by the astronomical price of textbooks. The sites offer perks that include massive savings and free return shipping:
Talk radio host Clark Howard wrote a little diatribe declaring the textbook system broken and offering Chegg as analternative:
Textbooks can be one of the biggest expenses of a college education. Clark upsets college professors whenever he picks on them for requiring students to use the newest edition of a book -- instead of allowing students to purchase older used versions.
Some professors have even accused the consumer champ of trying to stifle education!
Meanwhile, certain schools take kickbacks from book publishers for mandating that students use custom-edition textbooks. The production runs on these custom texts are small enough to be targeted for specific university courses.
These "boutique" books -- which may excise certain material or add a professor's published papers -- come embossed with a warning that it's illegal to sell back as a used book. The campus book stores are, of course, complicit because they refuse to buy these books from students.
So there are a lot of factors conspiring against students who are on a budget.
But what if you could rent your textbooks? Chegg.com offers just that opportunity. Chegg claims to have saved students $41 million to date. (Editor's note: This figure is accurate as of July 28, 2009.) Give it a try this fall semester.
[Check the comments following both the Consumerist and Howard articles.]
Need some icing for that college-textbook-racket cake? Try this for starters (bottom-line highlight):
I urge any of my [fellow professor] colleagues reading this to consider how many extra hours flipping burgers McDonald's or peddling clothes at Abercrombie & Fitch, or, worse yet, how many extra dollars their students have to go in debt, before piling on all the extra books.
***Well said, indeed.***
Don't forget to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.