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Articles / Applying to College / Terrible Textbook Tariffs

Terrible Textbook Tariffs

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Jan. 30, 2018

When you think about the cost of going to college, major categories come to mind. You consider the cost of tuition, room and board, meal plans, possible car expenses, parking permits, clothing, maybe even fraternity or sorority dues. However, one of the areas that often escapes budgeting is textbooks. Think about what possible major you may be pursuing and then check out some of the required courses that you will be attending.

Next, see if you can access the required texts for the current or upcoming year that apply to some of those courses at your target colleges. A quick Internet search will then reveal what will likely be a shocking look at the prices of those tomes.

Thinking back to my college years, and remembering the experiences of our son and daughter as they negotiated their higher educations, I recall how amazed I was when I saw the tallies of our respective semester book requirements. Beyond bound books, there are also the infamous "study (or "review") packets" that professors assemble and have reproduced at local copy centers. I've always been curious as to how much profit professors are making on these productions. They are relatively quick and easy to produce, since much of the information is gathered from existing materials, put in order and photocopied, and then integrated with the course's syllabus.

So, being the intrepid Googler that I am, I searched for the most expensive college textbooks these days. The very first link that appeared was an older list from years back. Thus, when confronting the prices here, be sure to add in some inflation:

  1. Acta Philosophorum The First Journal of Philosophy: $1,450
  2. Encyclopedia of International Media and Communications: $1,215
  3. Management Science An Anthology: $850
  4. History of Early Film: $740
  5. Biostatistical Genetics and Genetic Epidemiology: $665
  6. Companion Encyclopedia of Psychology: $600
  7. Feminism and Politics: $600
  8. Concepts and Design of Chemical Reactors: $593
  9. Advanced Semiconductor and Organic Nano-Techniques: $570
  10. Ethics in Business and Economics: $550
  11. Environment in the New Global Economy: $510
  12. Solid State Chemistry and Its Applications: $500

Granted, you may not be majoring in anything that would require some of these books, but you might be stunned to see what publishers (and college bookstores) are getting for scholarly volumes.

I can remember some of the "cost savings" moves I made when I was in college. Back then, I was able to find a few required texts in our local library, and checked them out and renewed them until the 10-week (term, not semester) class had ended. I also bought some used texts and borrowed a few. The others, which I had to buy, are now on my bookshelves here in my office. Believe it or not, I have had occasion to reference some of them while doing various research projects. So, having to buy textbooks isn't a complete waste of money.

Digging deeper into the "Why?" of these seemingly absurd prices, I found a good examinations of the issue ...

Students Are Still Saddled With Soaring Textbook Costs, Report Says

... which notes, in part:

Rising tuition costs aren't the only thing driving up the cost of higher education. Textbook prices have skyrocketed in recent years.

Since 2006, the cost of a college textbook has increased by 73 percent — or more than four times the rate of inflation — according to Covering the Cost, a new report from the non-profit Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups). It's not uncommon for an individual book to cost more than $200, and some have price tags that go as high as $400, the report said.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but the College Board recommends that students budget about $1,200 a year for textbooks and supplies.

“This is a serious problem," said Ethan Senack, higher education advocate at Student PIRGs. “We've known for a long time that high textbook prices create a lose-lose choice for students. They can either spend hundreds of dollars to buy the textbook, take time away from studying to work extra hours to pay for their books, or they can go without the book and accept the consequences." ...

... The PIRG report blamed soaring prices on two key factors:

  • Lack of competition: Five publishers control 80 percent of the market
  • No consumer choice in this purchase: Students must buy the books they're assigned

The Association of American Publishers (AAP) questions the PIRG report and its findings. David Anderson, AAP's executive director of higher education, said the study is “way off base" about the financial pressures that students and parents face. He cites figures from the National Association of College Stores that shows the typical student now spends around $560 per year on required course materials, down from $700 in the 2007/2008 academic year.

The industry is changing, Anderson said, moving away from printed textbooks to digital learning programs.

“I would agree that the price of hard-bound print books is high, and this industry understands that and they are moving to make new digital resources available that are more engaging, help students learn and get better grades, and slash the prices in half or more," Anderson told NBC News. “I think we're the only industry involved with higher education that can say they're cutting costs by half by shifting in this digital direction." ...

... There are ways to lower the cost of books. Students can buy used, rent from a variety of websites that offer savings of up to 90 percent, or buy new books and try to sell them back at the end of the semester.

A growing number of colleges and universities across the country are now using “open-source" textbooks. These books are written by faculty and peer-reviewed, just like traditional books, but they're free online and free to download. They're typically available in print for between $20 and $40.

In 2013, Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va., made a bold decision and offered an associate's degree program that does not use traditional books. The typical student at Tidewater spends about $3,400 on books and supplies during his or her years at the school. According to the administration, that's about one-quarter of the expense of attendance.

Students enrolled in the Z-Degree program (the "z" stands for “zero textbooks") take Z-Courses that use all open-source materials.

“We sawtextbook costsas a barrier to our students' success," said Linda Williams, a professor of business management and administration, who helped develop Tidewater's Z-Degree. “My colleagues and I are faced every semester with students who find themselves unable to afford the course materials. Those students either do extremely poorly in the course because they're trying to cobble together some form of content on their own or they drop the class or withdraw from school." ...

Read the entire long article for some excellent insights on causes (and some cures) for college textbook costs. I read this alarming statement a while back in a now unavailable Web link:

... Separate analyses from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group have found that textbook costs are typically comparable to 26 percent of tuition at state universities and 72 percent of tuition at community colleges.

That's an amazing statistic. A quarter of state university expense is due to textbook expense! Not much left over for pizza!

Think ahead -- and plan ahead -- for college textbook costs. It's more than you realize. You'll be glad that you did.


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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