Is the Cost of College Textbooks too High

As a college instructor of over forty years, I answer a resounding “yes” to this question. In my many years of teaching I have seen the money that students spend on textbooks increase faster than the cost of tuition at virtually every institution where I have taught. Students may think that faculty members are not concerned about the high cost of textbooks or that we don’t do our part to decrease the cost of textbooks. I want to assure college students everywhere that teachers are well aware of the textbook cost problem and many are working to alleviate it.

Let’s discuss just why textbooks cost so much. After all, textbooks are books and the cost of books seems to be going down if you look at online sites such as Even at Barnes and Noble or Books a Million, you can get a fairly thick paperback novel for under $20. Why is it that a paperback textbook, then, costs $100 or more?

There are several reasons that textbooks cost so much: 1) supply and demand, 2) market size, and 3) captive audience. Let’s examine each of these concepts.

First, you have heard of supply and demand. This economic principle truly comes into play in the textbook industry. It’s not a terribly large industry, actually. Where your particular class in concerned, the publisher is a seller of one. That is, only one publisher manufactures and sells the textbook selected by your professor for your particular class. Look at it this way, if you professor required you to bring a calculator to class, you would have your choice of a whole host of calculators and thus could choose either an expensive one or a cheap one. With the textbook your teacher selects, there is only one choice. You can’t decide you’d rather study from a different textbook that might be cheaper (well, you could but you probably wouldn’t too very well on the exams). When you professor selects the textbook for your particular course, there is all of a sudden a strong demand and a fairly small supply. Thus, the publisher can set the price for the textbook at whatever they like.

Also, keep in mind that textbooks are not books that people typically are anxious to purchase. That is, there is not a great demand for these books in the general public. Therefore, if professors do not require the book for a course, the book will not be purchased and demand will plummet. The publisher will lose money. The publisher often must recoup their losses from all the potential sales that aren’t made when professors do not choose this textbook.

Second, consider the issue of market size. The textbook market is large but not as large as other book markets. The textbook market is only as large as the number of college students (and not everyone is a college student) and college students buy textbooks. However, that’s about the only time in a person’s life when they will buy such booksthis four year college period. So textbook publishers have this finite size audience that will potentially buy their books over just a brief span of four years. Compared to other book publishers who have a potentially much larger market size that will last a potentially much longer time, textbook publishers must make their money from this limited group in a very limited time frame.

Finally, is the idea of the captive audience. Textbooks are books that readers are forced to buy. The audience is captive. Professors expect their students to have copies of the textbook. I have experienced instances where students have come to me and informed me that they couldn’t afford to buy the textbook. I usually placed a copy of each textbook on reserve in the college library where students without a textbook could go to read the assignments. This, of course, was a stop gap measure and was implemented only for emergency cases. I certainly have sympathy for students in this situation, but part of college is buying the books for the courses taken. Surely, students don’t expect teachers to supply each student with a textbook, and students lacking a textbook are truly at a loss in a course.

Is there anything that can be done about the high cost of college textbooks? Probably not across the board. Textbook publishers have monopolies on their particular textbook areas and disciplines and that is unlikely to change. Solutions for students include buying the textbook used, buying the textbook online, renting the textbook from academic rental agencies, sharing the cost of textbooks with fellow classmates, or trying to read the textbook (or portions of it) online. Yes, the cost of college textbooks is too high compared to other books, but there is not much that can be done about it.