Inflating Textbook Prices

The conspiracy to keep textbooks overly priced is one that ironically coexists being both an ethical wrong and a capitalist right. Is it wrong to charge college students outrageously high prices for textbooks? Or is it a bigger issue of supply and demand? Regardless, textbooks are overpriced and there is nothing anyone has been able to, or cared enough to do about it. Solving the overpriced textbook issue would mean discovering rampant corruption inside government-funded institutions where acquisitive enterprises take advantage of very much aware college administrations, faculty, and students by expanding its profit margins using the pretext of the necessity of education.

Private bookstores are common in college campuses and they are a small part of the many reasons for the current textbook price crisis. Speaking to any college administrator concerning the trouble arising from overcharging students for textbooks means getting single-sided answers aimed at protecting their decision-making power presently and for the future. As the president of the East Los Angeles College, Robert Isomoto, puts it when asked about the problem’s root: “It’s the publishers they are setting the prices”. This is a very common answer among administrations and people involved in the education processes at California college campuses. It’s a way of saying: “I have nothing to do with this; I can’t change this; leave me out of it”.

The attitude of placing blame anywhere except to its own administration, keeps colleges in a lockdown and unable to brainstorm possible solutions to the problem, urging some students to take matters into their own hands and participate in college bookstore boycotts as well as the attempt to implement aid and loan programs to try to alleviate the situation at least at a limited local level; still, the problem lies beyond just a publisher’s monopoly or the administration’s lack of action. College faculty members have as much, if not the majority, of the blameworthiness for the book prices being completely out of control.

The way it works is that publishers need to get students to buy their textbooks in order to stay in business, but in order to achieve this goal they don’t market to their target audience, instead, they set aim at their bosses, in this case, the professors. They bribe the college faculty with elaborate lunch’s, gift certificates, and most preciously, free textbooks. Why would free textbooks be considered a bribe? Doesn’t that sound like something that would benefit the students? The fact, unfortunately, is that a lot of the faculty, instead of placing these free textbook donations at the college library for reference, or loaning the books to needy students, turn around and place these books on e-bay, or other textbook websites up for auction. They become salespeople for the textbooks they are assigning to their own students, and since the textbooks are a gift from the publishers, they yield a one hundred percent profit for the teacher. This is a pretty nice amount for a professor, especially when you are dealing with textbooks that are overpriced to begin with, multiplied by the number of students in the class or classes they teach.

Publishers benefit from this practice because the rest of the students that are not able to place a bid on e-bay to buy the textbook from their professor are forced to buy the mandatory assigned textbook from the school’s bookstore at full price. Full price, meaning the total retail price for the textbook plus a hefty mark-up percentage from the bookstore. This percentage’s mark-up is standard practice and it should not exceed “twenty-seven and a half percent” according to Isomoto, but the truth is that there is no way to corroborate what the true mark-up really is.

A student-lead commission established to investigate the pricing issues within its bookstore at East Los Angeles College has reported that “some textbooks are marked-up anywhere from 30 to 50%,” which is above what the Los Angeles District authorizes, and not only the textbooks are marked up, but also “supplies and other class-related materials even snacks are marked up.” Basically, college bookstores are very unregulated and are a cause of very much resentment among powerless students that have no choice but to give in to the bookstore’s will.

The ELAC Bookstore Investigative Commission also came to find a very disturbing fact that most taxpayers are unaware of, which is the misuse of the Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOP&S) textbook vouchers. These are vouchers granted to students with financial need in order to assist them in the purchase of textbooks and school supplies. The misuse comes when they can only use the grant money at the costly in-house campus bookstore, where they have to pay $80 for a backpack they could have purchased at Wal-Mart for $10. This means students still cannot afford to get all the textbooks and supplies they need with the grant, and the bookstore gets to keep every penny of the taxpayer’s money earmarked for the student.

A recent statistic published by the National Association of College Stores points out the fact that nearly 65% of college students do not buy textbooks, which is a sad but very real statistic. There is a lot more expense entwined in the college cost beyond tuition, and textbook is most likely the second biggest expense, if not the first. Students are less and less able to afford the books they need, being forced to make a choice between filling up their gas tank for three weeks or buying a textbook. Many students chose to “wing it,” or in other words try to “get by” the semester without buying the required textbook, which is a very risky practice that in turn hurts academic performance and dynamic learning. Textbook sharing is another impractical way that some students cope with the problem; it requires that two or more students synchronize their class schedule for each one to share the use of the same textbook on the same semester.

Publishers, however, stay in very good business by publishing many editions of the same textbook; therefore, semester after semester, new Math and English textbooks are published with the same information and concurrently the old editions go out of print. This forces students to have to get the new edition textbook assigned by their professor, since the old edition becomes ostensibly obsolete. For example, Math is a subject that hasn’t changed for the last five-hundred years, at least, and yet, every semester there are new textbooks explaining the same old concepts, which is understandable for History or Law subject textbooks, but when was the last time that a new Algebra variable was introduced?

Another of the many factors inflating textbook prices to their current excessive levels is the lack of encouragement towards bookstore competition within college campuses. Administration hardly allows for two bookstores to subsist in the same campus, let alone having two or more different proprietors. A serious monopoly is what has become of the college’s in-house bookstores allowing them to charge any price the publishers set and having no regard for the student’s economic welfare. Los Angeles College District Board Rules clearly make reference against “any monopoly”, yet administration fails to address the problem or to even acknowledge that it is a problem at all.

The California Community College’s Student Senators have informally discussed during their last assembly this last November some of the possible resolutions and actions it plans to take in order to address this issue, including class-action lawsuits against the publishers and the reformation and restructuring of the in-house bookstores on college campuses altogether. The best solution to the textbook crisis remains to be seen, but the point of it all is that this is an appalling problem that must be addressed one way or another before more students and taxpayers are hurt.