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More than a year after the election, alleged Russian hackers’ interference is still making headlines.

Americans are fiercely protective of their freedom to exchange ideas and information in public discourse, without outside intervention.

Yet, textbook publishers breed miniature monopolies, in effect constructing huge financial barriers to swaths of information.

Students shell out $1,168 every year on books and materials, according to the College Board.

Many students can’t afford that kind of outflow, some just barely.

“I worked all summer and a majority of all the money I earned from working was used to buy one semester’s worth of textbooks,” Kate Zimmerman ‘20, said.

Some choose not to buy books altogether, in hopes that they can get what they need from lectures alone.

Others, like Monzerat Vargas, have a book grant, a stipend for the Denison bookstore, but it still doesn’t cover all textbook costs.

“I still have to buy books out-of-pocket when my psychology and other science books are too expensive,” she said.

But publishers continue to charge exorbitant prices for textbooks, because they can. Students are required to buy these books, which makes the demand inelastic. In other words, demand stays the same even as price increases.

And publishers know every trick in the book to keep those prices high.

New editions hit the market as frequently as the semesters change. And that isn’t because there’s a ton of new information; it’s to limit the secondhand market, when students sell their peers textbooks that they no longer need.

Another factor working against students is that professors structure their syllabus around a textbook, and once they’ve done so, they’re not willing to change. After all, constructing a new curriculum takes hours of work done outside of the classroom, which professors aren’t necessarily paid for.

So, there’s a strong incentive for publishers to get professors to adopt their books. They provide faculty with free copies, pay them frequent visits, and sometimes even given cash bribes, according to The Washington Post— all to convince professors to assign their books.

Once they do, competition subsides, and publishers enjoy semester after semester of new customers.

The issue is, publishers don’t compete directly for consumers, the way companies for products like late-night ramen or 8 a.m. class sweatpants do, where students have a variety of brands to choose from, keeping sellers’ prices low.

Publishers compete for professors, who may or may not care how much students pay for books.

Sounds like a monopoly, doesn’t it? That’s because essentially, it is.

But some colleges in California are fighting back with open educational resources.

A state law enacted in 2012 provided funds for three big public schools to create an online library with high-quality free to low-cost textbooks and educational materials for students according to the California OER Council website.

Faculty’s easy access to such resources, plus institutional support and information on how to teach with these, increased professors’ adoption of open resource materials.

Manipulation of information isn’t reserved for Russian hackers; American publishers are well-versed in exploiting students’ quest for knowledge, and lining their own pockets.

Taylor Shook

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3 COMMENTS

  1. John Posted on February 20, 2018 at 9:42 am

    First, please look up the definition of monopoly. Faculty select the content or book they believe will best help students to learn. Not all content is equal, but faculty have a choice between high-cost options like 4-color hardbound books, and low-cost alternatives like open educational resources. A monopoly would be if there were only one or two products available, both owned by the same company. In this case, there are thousands of options available for most courses. Publishers spend millions of dollars creating the best possible book. The costs include websites, teaching materials, training, authors, editors, photos and graphics, printing, shipping, warehousing, sales staff, and more. Like most business, publishers need to recoup their costs. They used to make back their money in the first or second term. Used books ate into new unit sales, now piracy and copyright violators affect sales. The cost is going up for creating content, keeping websites up-to-date and running, as well as creating new content. Publishers have opted to offer loose leaf versions, rent books, sell ebooks, etc. all in an effort to lower book costs. Go into any retail store and you’ll find prices have gone up on any item of quality. Then again, maybe your education isn’t as important to you, and you’ll offer your skills for free when you graduate. It will help keep your industry prices lower.

    Reply
    1. Taylor Posted on February 23, 2018 at 1:50 pm

      Thanks for your feedback, John!
      You’ll note that I did not say that textbook companies are actually monopolies– I said that once they get a professor to use their book, they’ve got customers for a long time, because of how professors often structure their courses around a book, which makes them hesitant to switch once they do decide on one. This makes them like miniature monopolies, because even as prices rise, demand stays the same. The company has a monopoly on the students in that particular class.
      Also, it’s true that textbook companies may not recoup their costs in the first edition of a book, which is why they come out with new editions frequently, to limit the secondhand market. Students are typically required to have the newest version of a textbook, so that brings in new revenue, even though new editions are only slightly different from older ones.
      While there are e-book versions of some textbooks, I’ve never had the option to buy a loose-leaf copy, although I hope other students do have professors who choose books that are available in this medium, and thus at a lower cost.
      Also, my education is of the utmost importance to me, that’s why I worked four jobs over the summer so that I would be able to afford to buy the books and supplies I need. As a liberal arts student I am learning to ask questions about the world around me, which is reflected in my writing, which I am glad you find so interesting.
      I appreciate your readership!

      Reply
    2. Kate Zimmeran Posted on February 23, 2018 at 2:38 pm

      In my personal experience, professors have hardly cared at all about how expensive textbooks were. My Consumer Psychology professor had us buy a book that was over $150 that he never once mentioned in class, that he never once had us read for information. Assuming that all professors will actively search out the most inexpensive, most information rich resources for the textbooks they choose is simply incorrect.

      Reply
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