College Textbooks: It’s Time to Throw the Book at Them

college textbooksConsidering that the digital revolution has dramatically improved access to information pretty much across the board, while also lowering the price of delivering the content to consumers, doesn’t it seem like college textbook publishing has been operating in something of a time warp?

Anyone with kids enrolled in college in recent years (present company included) has likely been confronted by obscenely high bills for textbooks. In fact, stats reported by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group reveal that college students spend an average of ~$900 per year on textbooks. When you consider that some courses don’t even have textbooks, the average cost for those classes that do is even higher than the overall figures would suggest.

What gives here? You can blame a number of factors. High among them are publishers that issue new editions of the same textbook every year or so; never mind the fact that 95%+ of the material is identical to prior editions. And so, perfectly good textbooks that could be used by different students over multiple years are instead relegated to the trash or a box in the basement. Or they languish, unwanted, at the book nook at the local thrift store.

And how about publishing books using expensive and high-margin hardcover binding when soft-cover would be more than adequate? That’s a common publisher ploy.

Finally, let’s not forget the “unholy alliance” between college bookstores and book publishers to try to corner as much of the college textbook business as possible. After all, those textbook sales represent a major contributor to college store profits.

Thankfully, recent developments suggest that real alternatives for students (and their beleaguered parents) have now emerged. Some of these resources are web sites like eBay’s where students can purchase books for substantially less than the published price. Or Chegg, where students can rent the books and return them following their use. Of course, this is assuming you know the correct ISBN number of the books in question and can be sure you’re ordering the correct edition. Often, that’s not an easy feat at all based on how hard some school stores try to hide the ISBN information from purchasers.

The ISBN information will also serve you in good stead when searching for used textbooks on sites like Amazon where the ISBN numbers are included in book listings.

But beyond simply finding sites to purchase books at a cheaper price, there are new digital alternatives that are also cropping up. CourseSmart provides digital versions of textbooks that are viewable online or can be downloaded. Not only is the cost much less, but students can choose to print out texts chapter by chapter or simply keep their textbooks on their computer, leaving more space in their backpacks for more important things like electronic gadgets, food and bottled water. For now, most of the CourseSmart choices are from major publishers like McGraw-Hill and Wiley, but these offerings are sure to expand in coming years.

Another interesting development is engaging the course instructors themselves in developing custom reading materials. That’s what Flat World Knowledge is doing: It’s an open-source textbook provider that offers online books through a web-based reader, free of charge. Professors can get in on the action by customizing what’s offered to their own specific course by rearranging book chapters and removing or adding text. Not only does it make their course syllabus more user-friendly for students, it’s a labor saver for the instructors as well.

How does Flat World make money doing this? Students can pay for “premium” upgrades such as PDF printing, audio files, and interactive quizzes that are offered along with the free basic text information.

As to which of these new services will turn out to be tomorrow’s standard way of acquiring course instruction materials … who knows? But one thing’s for certain: the cost of buying textbooks won’t be nearly the monetary challenge it’s been for students and parents up til now.

3 thoughts on “College Textbooks: It’s Time to Throw the Book at Them

  1. The other ‘unholy alliance’ is the college prof’s who require students to purchase books authored by themselves.

    People complain about the cost of gasoline and health care. The cost of a college education is skyrocketing.

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