Saturday, June 19, 2010

I can afford college, but not the books.

Hi everyone,

And now for some hard hitting political commentary on the... on the price of text books. I tried to figure out how to include kittens and puppies in this piece, but there wasn't room for them.

Bitter irony returns next week. In the meantime, Saturday's column:

The price of textbooks these days

This week the University of Wisconsin Regents considered a new policy to make textbooks more affordable for students. Textbooks. Not very sexy. In fact, they’re considering how to proceed with a 3-year-old review on managing cost increases for Wisconsin’s university students. One factor identified as increasing the price of college was the price of books. Still awake? A bill on the topic was actually introduced into the Assembly in 2007-2008 (AB 883). It died in committee.

College textbooks are, however, only boring if you haven’t had to buy any in the past 10 years. If you have, the sticker shock alone is enough to guarantee your children will be born with whiplash.

Sitting down? Students at Madison nowadays can spend nearly $1,000 a year on textbooks and a lot of those books will be in courses they have to take for breadth requirements but which they may not need again as part of their employment. While the university’s task is to produce educated citizens for the Republic – and that means everyone who votes needs to know enough to operate the machinery of self-governance – it is possible you’ll have to take courses that are not directly related to your source of income. So, whether you’re sweating out geology or art history, you’ll still need to buy the textbook and that costs money: sometimes enough to put you on mac and cheese for a month.

The price of textbooks was not always an issue. I still have my first copy of Plato’s Republic. The faded price remains visible inside the front cover. In 1975 I paid the bookstore at the University of South Alabama $2.50 (which the consumer price index calculator translates into $10.13 in 2010 dollars). Not bad. Today the same text lists for $24.95, more than double the price over 35 years even after you adjust for inflation.

The single smartest, and most obvious, recommendation in this report is now required under the recent federal College Opportunity and Affordability Act. Starting in July, colleges will have to identify which textbooks will be required in what courses for the coming semester. It’s called “early adoption” which simply means letting the students know, ahead of time, what books they’ll need. With enough lead time, students will be able to go online or to their secondhand bookstores and find used or less expensive copies. It’s a kind of appeal to transparency in pricing.

Typically, you’d simply wander over to the bookstore the first week of class and pick up the books your professors require. You’re a captive market for a monopolistic bookstore and you pay what they ask -- but, no more. I checked our own Web site and found the book titles have already been posted for fall semester.

One reason textbooks cost as much as they do is that publishers constantly put out “new and improved” editions. They do this because in many disciplines the knowledge base changes and books have to keep up, but they also make modest adjustments to the text, re-issue it, and raise the price in order to keep ahead of the secondary market in used books. Publishers can only charge you the first time a text is sold. Re-selling costs them money, so they add a new section of exercises and release a new edition.

But if the changes to the new edition aren’t that important, why don’t professors and instructors simply use old editions and save the students money?

Great question. It’s because publishers are very careful not to let faculty know what the prices actually are. You receive friendly and professional e-mails with an offer for a free copy of the text and nowhere — nowhere – does the publisher mention the cost to the student.

Remember Assembly Bill 883, the one that died in committee? It was going to require that publishers provide price and revision history to the faculty who assign the book. I don’t know whether the committee simply didn’t think it was important enough to consider or whether someone sat on the bill intentionally.

A few years ago I ordered up a logic textbook for the coming semester. I’d used the text a dozen times before. It was, in fact, the same text I had used as an undergraduate, but now in something like its 15th edition. A new version had just been released, so the publisher sent me a review copy. It looked great and I sent in my order. For no reason whatsoever, I checked the sticker price online and discovered that it would cost the student over $100 ... and yet it was essentially the same text I’d used before with a few new exercises added. I cancelled the order and found a supply of earlier editions online for about $15 a copy.

With this new information and a little competitive shopping, you can concentrate on studying rather than worrying about whether you’ll be able to eat and go to college at the same time.

Shocking, I know. But there it is.



Kevin Scheunemann said...


You could make this a Capitalist venture.

Buy the books yourself at $15. Charge kids $25 first day of class, if they return it in good condition at end of semester they get $15 back. You keep $10 for your capitalist management fee.

If they don't return it. You keep all $25. Use $15 to get another book. You still keep your $10"management fee".

Just don't let kittens or puppies do their "business" on your capitalist textbook piles. (Unless its open to Marx on worker alienation, then let kitten and puppy nature take its course.)

See how easy it was to work kittens and puppies in?

Dave R. said...

What is it between The Motley Cow and Kevin Scheunemann?

I understand he is a former studen of yours, but does he truly oppose everything you say or is this some sort of inside game between you two?

And finally, doesn't Kevin have a job? He seems to spend an extraordinary amount of time reading your blog. doesn't he have anything better to do?

Mpeterson said...

Kevin was briefly student of mine nearly 20 years ago who I remember mainly because he would not be shaken in his [demonstrably false] belief that Ayn Rand understood Plato. It's charming in an 18 year old. Some follow Rand, some become Scientologists. Usually people grow out of it.

He is the owner of the Dairy Queen in Kewaskum and a self-professed Randian style libertarian. He's involved with the local right wing political collective in our area and throws mud at anything I post.

It seems unlikely that he has anything better to do.

I could simply stop posting the rest of his typically baiting bits of self-absorbed logical macramé in the same way I already vet out his more aggressive trolls.

Tell you what Dan, I'll let you decide: should I remove his posting privileges?


Kevin Scheunemann said...


Mark and I agree on:

1.) Medical marijuana.
2.) The idea that big banks are evil and oppose the bank bailouts.
3.) We are both against corporate bailouts of car companies.
4.) I'm fairly sure we both agree MPS is a human rights disaster.

I kinda thought we agreed on the textbook issue on this post and applaud Prof. Peterson for using a more cost effective earlier edition for students.

I better stop agreeing now before this post becomes completely uninteresting:)