Why is something so fundamental as the price of a school book so difficult
The College Board places the average annual cost of books at $1,168 per student.
Efforts to reduce this staggering sum have led to marketing of used, rental and
various forms of electronic books. But there are many hurdles, and the textbook
situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Although college enrollment has increased in the past 10 years, textbook sales
have been dropping. Not surprisingly, publishers and authors will do whatever
they can to maintain profit levels. So, for example, as sales of used books have
increased, prices for new books have climbed.
E-books cost less to produce than printed texts, yet they don't change the
bottom line dramatically. For one thing, they are sold separately to each user,
eliminating used books and shared copies. And they require hardware, which students
or schools must purchase and maintain.
Some smaller publishers have begun offering "open-source" books,
distributed online for free. These suppliers make their money by selling study
aids and other supplements, but it is not clear whether such a model can succeed
on a larger scale.
There are also indications that many students still prefer printed books.
This is likely to change over time, but that means e-books must be introduced
College bookstores profit from sales, as do some professors who make students
buy books they have written. Also, teachers seem too willing to require new, "revised" editions
of textbooks, even though the changes could be minimal. In doing so, they wipe
out the market for used copies.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which took effect at the start of the
2010 school year, included several provisions aimed at easing the cost of textbooks.
For instance, colleges are required to identify all books for a course at the
time of registration so students can evaluate the costs, and publishers must
offer texts separately, rather than bundling them with CDs or workbooks.
A congressional advisory committee identified several factors that inflate
prices. The most damaging is that the primary choosers of books are not the primary
users; that is, teachers usually select the books, but students pay for them.
Second, students often are resigned to hikes in prices because they are generally
hostage to professors' selections. Interestingly, many European schools demand
lower prices from publishers. The committee discovered that one popular economics
textbook cost $126 in the U.S. but $76 in Great Britain.
A good first step in controlling college book costs would be for schools to
comply with the law. Another would be for administrators to insist that teachers
avoid ordering new editions that offer only cosmetic changes.
Ultimately, wider use of electronic formats will loosen the grip of a few
large publishing companies, leading to greater competition and presumably lower
prices. Meanwhile, colleges and universities should wake up to the fact that
the best way to avoid having $200 books is to stop requiring students to buy
them. A new chapter in textbook pricing can't be written quickly enough.
© Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in