Why You Should Care: The Textbook Industry’s Grip on the College Student

by Caleb Schrock-Hurst: Horizon Columnist

College is ungodly expensive. Even with scholarships and grants paying large portions of tuition and fees, most undergrad students end up with crushing debt that won’t be paid off until late in their careers. Despite our hesitancy (and often inability) to pay full tuition, we should understand that most of the money paid does go to good use. Schools need to run, and well educated and skilled faculty need to be paid fairly. So, if for the purpose of this discussion, we forget about high tuition, what else makes college so expensive?

I present one simple word: textbooks.

From literature to science, students are burdened with incredible expectations when it comes to books. We are required to buy snazzy educational masterpieces semester after semester at exorbitant prices. In three semesters of study I have already paid about $600 for textbooks, and I am but a lowly English major. Compared to the amount nursing student pay, $600 is basically nothing, as used nursing textbooks from the bookstore run, on the low end, about $100 apiece.

How and why did this industry get this way? Why are we paying so much? Is there anything we can do about it? I have three points that will hopefully shed some light on the answers.

 

Number One: Textbook companies face next to no competition and are clearly milking the system.

Today, the “Big Three” textbook companies, McGraw-Hill, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Pearson PLC (which owns the more familiar Prentice-Hall name), control 90% of the textbook industry. With so little lack of competition, prices can then be set arbitrarily high and astounding profits can be made. For example, Pearson PLC reported a profit of 9.43 billion dollars in fiscal year 2013. For some perspective, McDonald’s profit that year was only $5.6 billion.

So why doesn’t something happen? Shouldn’t this be fixed? As good little capitalists we were told the market would correct itself, so why hasn’t Lord Free Market carved a bloody hole in McGraw-Hill and freed us from our economic enslavement? The answer lies in the nature of the broken economic market that is the textbook trade. Theoretically, the consumer won’t buy things that they feel are overpriced, and as a result, prices are lowered by suppliers until buyers will buy and thus equilibrium is achieved. The problem with textbooks is that we, the consumers, simply don’t have a choice in what we buy. Textbook companies can set their prices anywhere they want because we will have to pay what they ask. This is far from ideal.

Number Two: Middlemen sellers are making tidy profits off our educational materials.

Although many students do use online stores like Amazon and Chegg to buy their books, the closest-to-home book vendor is definitely the Hesston College bookstore. Now, I don’t want to accuse the bookstore of trying to exploit students, and I do love spending money there (I mean, they sell Ramen, so they can’t be all bad). In addition, what money they do make goes back to the school, supporting day-to-day college operations, which support students. But, I happened across something while looking at the school’s budget from the last few years that affected my view: the bookstore brought in $312,000 in gross revenue during the 2014-2015 school year, when there were 428 students enrolled. That comes out to just under $730 dollars per student.

They didn’t make that money off Ramen.

Revenue, of course, doesn’t take into consideration the bookstores own costs, and in particular, the cost of the books. However, Mark Landes, Vice President of Finance and Auxiliary Services, doesn’t deny the fact that books sold on campus are pricey, saying that that books in the bookstore are sold “at a considerable markup.” He cautioned this statement by reminding that books will be expensive no matter where they are purchased (which is definitely true).  According to Landes, of the revenue generated last school year, $242,000 of the $312,000 was from books, not clothing and other bookstore items. With this in mind, I encourage my fellow students to weigh the convenience of using the bookstore with the slightly higher price they will pay.

Number Three: We are all complacent in letting this profit machine milk us dry.

We buy new editions that are copied almost verbatim from previous ones (For example, I am using an old edition of the Music Theory textbook and the only difference is the page numbers. Getting the old edition saved me ). We blindly buy individual textbooks instead of trying to share. We fail to speak against the waste in the system and giggle when wellness books end up in the trash after eight weeks.

Teachers and faculty, I cannot help but think that you may also be partially at fault. You prefer the convenience of online assignments to what textbooks actually have to say. You require new editions, forgetting that old ones work perfectly well and are nearly identical. My question for you: are the new chapter addendums exercises really worth your students additional $90 dollars? You are a dedicated and wonderful group of instructors, I would encourage you to seek creative alternatives to standard textbooks. You will benefit student immensely and the world as well.

 

In conclusion, the textbook industry is a cruel, cruel game. Teachers, stop being pawns of ungodly large corporations and use old editions for classes. Students, take the difficult route and buy even older editions, share books, and give your empty bank accounts voices.

The textbook industry is a game, and it’s time to stop playing.

 

Caleb Schrock-Hurst is a Sophomore at Hesston College where he works as a Writing Assistant, Ministry Assistant, and Horizon contributor. He uses outdated textbooks for two of his classes. Feel free to contact him at caleb.schrock-hurst@hesston.edu or find him on campus if you wish to exchange verbal or physical blows.

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