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.