The Arizona Desert Lamp

Textbook Season

Posted in Campus, Textbooks by Evan Lisull on 24 August 2008

The school year is just about to get under way, which means that it’s high time for some griping over the price of textbooks. Cue the Wildcat:

Textbooks are not yet printed on the backs of hundred dollar bills, but they’re still expensive. The UA Web site’s estimated cost of attendance places books and supplies at $1,000 per academic year.
That holds true just about everywhere. The national average that students spend on textbooks is $995 per year, Farias said.

Tuition, housing and food are still more expensive than textbooks, according to the estimated cost of attendance. But after paying for those basics, forking over $500 a semester can be a dagger.

While the cost is certainly a factor, an even more important factor is the capriciousness of the market; there is no reason why this should be such an onerous cost. There’s a personal anecdote that I think perfectly illustrates the inanity of the college book market. This past spring, I was doing my book shopping online I started with my POL 341 class:

Not unreasonable, but not cheap either. I went over Amazon’s Marketplace (which I’ve found to have the best deals), just to see how much I could save. The first entry looked like this:

Thus, the bookstore was selling this book to the general at a third of the price that it was offering to the students it supposedly serves. It’s absolutely inexplicable, like many of the things that go down at the bookstore.

A few random thoughts about the textbook situation:

1. There really are alternatives out there; use them. Sometimes, it’s not very easy, and usually it involves several days of shipping or shady and uncommunicative dealers. But if you’re relatively organized, and have a bit of credit, you can save in the hundreds. Buy older versions of textbooks, since the differences are slim to nil. Ultimately, this comes back to the buyer; spending hundreds of dollars at the bookstore sends a much stronger message than a whiny screed after the fact. If you think that the bookstore is over-priced, then vote with your dollar and choose an alternative.

2. Professors play a role as well. Ultimately, it is the doctors and lecturers who chose the books that are taught. This is often ignored, and professors are painted as victims of evil, conniving Textbook Industry (Big Book?). Yet it’s inane to suggest that doctorates are being fooled by half-educated salesmen. Do they mean to suggest that they really don’t understand how much of any increase in price that the new edition will cost? Are the elite of the ivory tower oblivious to the cost of CDs and other nifty gadgets that they’ll use once, maybe? Professors need to be asked why they are using these new books, when the old texts were more than sufficient.

The faculty appear to be intransigent on the issue, though. From last year:

Wanda Howell, faculty chair and professor of nutritional sciences, stressed the importance of the resolution and said it couldn’t be delayed.

“We need to vote on this today,” she said. “No part of this bill can be construed as limiting the choice of textbooks by faculty.”

3. Decentralize the problem. Different departments have different issues with textbooks. The science departments are much more likely to deal with bundled software books than the social science majors. The supply issues for Gen Ed courses are much more pertinent than for upper-level classes within the majors.

Each department should play a role in its own book provisions, and should be free to establish, say, a sociology library with all the books available for a renters’ fee. The bookstore probably has a good reason to buy up books for Gen Ed classes, but these classes should in turn be taught with less expensive, and more readily available, books. Physics, chemistry, and similar departments should have a serious conversation about how nifty they want their “bundled” books to be, and should implement department-wide policy on the measure.

In an economics class I took last semester, the professor offered to rent out from a collection of books he had for a simple fee of $10, which would be paid back should the student choose to return the book. By building up this collection, the professor essentially reduced the textbook problem to nothing.

This is just one possible solution. Professors can provide less book-centric classes, making use of the plethora of online resources to teach. Ultimately, though, the only way textbook prices will come down is through bottom-up innovation at the classroom level, rather than ineffective mandates from the state legislature.


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  1. […] site made such an observation in its second post ever, but it’s good to ASA moving in this general direction.  Here is what ASA/ASUA propose to […]

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