Why Are Textbooks So Expensive? Here’s the Answer


It is no secret that the cost of higher education has soared in recent times. For proof, look no further than the fact that the cost of textbooks have seen an 88 percent increase from 2006 to 2016, which is far beyond the increase that would be expected based on the inflation in said period. There are numerous explanations for why textbooks for a single semester can cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars. Unfortunately, none of them suggest that the cost of textbooks will be going down anytime soon, which does not bode well for the accessibility of higher education for people coming from less well-off backgrounds to say the least. Here are some of the reasons that textbooks are so expensive:

Lack of Competition

Generally speaking, a lack of competition results in higher prices. This is because more competitors mean more competing products for the consumers, who can choose between them. As a result, the competitors have some incentive to make their competing products more appealing to the consumers, thus enabling them to make more profit by selling more units. Of course, one of the most common methods would be competitors lowering the prices on their competing products.

In the case of textbooks, there is very little competition. Just five publishers are responsible for something like 80 percent of the textbook industry, meaning that interested individuals aren’t exactly spoiled for choice when it comes to textbooks. This is particularly true because these publishers don’t like to compete with one another, so much so that they tend to avoid making textbooks for subjects in which one of their competitors have already entrenched themselves. After all, making textbooks in a crowded market means a lot of expenses in exchange for uncertain rewards, which is a scenario that most businesses are less than enthused about.

The Professors Choose the Textbooks

On a related note, it is the professors rather than the students who choose the textbooks. This is a huge problem because this leaves students with very little recourse should the chosen textbooks prove to be too expensive. For example, if a consumer learns that their favorite brand of cereal sees a huge surge in price, said individual can just switch out to some other brand of cereal. Furthermore, even if all of the different brands of cereal see similar surges in price at the same time, said individual can just switch out to other foodstuffs. In contrast, if a student can’t afford to buy the textbook that has been assigned by their professor, they are stuck with that choice. The whole thing is particularly bad because professors tend to be in a very different economic situation from their students, meaning that the issue of having to scramble to find a way to pay for hundreds and hundreds of dollars of textbooks every semester might not even come up in their minds in the first place.

The Publishers Are Forcing Students to Buy New Copies

A tried and true solution to the problem of expensive products is to either rent them or buy them used. Unfortunately, the publishers have come up with various ways to eliminate both options as potential solutions. For example, textbooks now come bundled with extra content that cannot be accessed until interested individuals have unique access codes for themselves. This is particularly painful when the use of that extra content is connected with course-work in such a manner that students stand to lose a considerable portion of their final grade should they fail to gain access to it. Meanwhile, the publishers have gutted the used textbooks market by releasing new editions of their textbooks on a regular basis. Certainly, interested individuals can still pick up used copies of older editions, but should they choose to do so, they stand a very real chance of missing out on critical points thanks to the changes between editions. Something that can be extra painful if new editions are combined with the use of extra content for maximum effect on the incentives of students.

The Cost of Making Textbooks

Finally, it should be mentioned that the cost of making a textbook has an impact on the price as well. Essentially, there are costs for the research, the writing, the editing, the production, and the distribution of textbooks, without which it would be impossible for them to make it into the hands of their eventual users. Generally speaking, it is interesting to note that textbooks for more quantitative subjects cost more than textbooks for their not so number-oriented counterparts, which is very much the consequence of how the costs of making textbooks can differ from subject to subject.

What Can Students Do About This?

Naturally, students have come up with various ways to reduce the negative impact that these expensive textbooks have on them. Unfortunately, none of these solutions are perfect, meaning that each one of them has its own particular costs.

For example, some students have chosen to cut down on their spending in other areas to free up enough funds for their textbooks. Some of them are lucky in that they can cut down on discretionary spending until they have enough money for their textbooks. Others, well, suffice to say that it isn’t uncommon to hear stories about students cutting down on their food, their health insurance, and their other necessities for the sake of paying their textbook costs. Likewise, there are other students that take the other approach of reducing their textbook costs one way or another. In some cases, this means that they choose to take fewer courses, thus making for fewer required textbooks. In other cases, they choose to take the hit to their final grade so that they can either borrow, buy used, or even skip out on buying the required textbooks.

Ultimately, the solution for the problem of expensive textbooks is going to have to come from people and parties beyond just the students. For instance, professors can actually do a lot to help by assigning course material from more affordable sources than textbooks. Likewise, governments have even more power at their disposal, provided that they actually have the incentive to make use of that power in the desired manner. Still, considering the pressure placed upon students, it seems reasonable to say that at some point in time, something will have to give way.

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