Why College Textbooks Cost So Much

While the soaring price of tuition and fees is the primary reason that college education has become so unaffordable, as any parent of a college kid knows, the price of college textbooks has followed close behind. As the Government Accountability Office reports in a newly released study, the cost of textbooks has increased at a rate more than twice that of the Consumer Price Index. At community colleges, which tend to be more affordable than four-year institutions, the cost of textbooks amounts to 72% of tuition and fees.

Textbook publishers give two primary reasons for the relentless price increases: (1) the cost of developing products to accompany the textbooks such as CD-ROMs and instructional supplements in response to demand from instructors, and (2) the increased frequency with which text books are revised and updated. The GAO report largely accepts that explanation.

Publishers invest in instructional supplements because the demand for such materials has intensified in recent years “in an environment of funding cuts.” Tools designed to enhance instructor productivity are in demand because reductions in the number of teaching assistants has increased the administrative burden for instructors. Thus, publishers develop online homework and quizzes that save instructors time. Work completed online can be graded immediately to provide immediate feedback on performance.

Another source of demand for special instructional materials: “The number of students who are unprepared for college-level work has been increasing.”

However, there is a bit more to the story: the pricing power of the textbook publishers. “U.S. college textbook prices may exceed prices in other countries because prices reflect market conditions found in each country, such as the willingness and ability of students to purchase the textbook,” states the report. In Canada, the United Kingdom and other English-speaking countries, there is less demand for instructional supplements and more resistance to paying higher prices. Accordingly, textbook publishers sell their books there for significantly less.

One factor the GAO appears to overlook in its analysis is the willingness of the U.S. government to inflate demand through cheap, easy college loans — leading to a “buy now, pay later” mentality. In other words, flooding the educational market with cheap credit leads to inflation not only in tuition and fees but textbooks.

One more point regarding the restructuring of the higher ed industry: It is interesting to see that colleges are feeling pressure to increase productivity. If supplementary materials save instructors time and labor, who is capturing that value? Are college labor costs shrinking? Are colleges providing the same educational value with fewer faculty and teaching assistants? If so, there may be a silver lining to the higher cost of textbooks. If not, then students are just paying higher textbook prices to make the jobs of faculty members a little easier.

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