PS Textbooks – Wondering About Costs

I haven’t posted anything in nearly a year, and it’s time that I start again.  Today’s Chronicle of Higher Education offers good topic: the cost of textbooks.  The article, “Students Are Spending Less on Textbooks, but That’s Not All Good,” talks about text book  and observes that when less spending means fewer purchases – not lower costs – that result does not benefit students. An excellent post, “The Practical Costs of Textbooks,” asks and and answers, “What impact does the cost of textbooks have on students? Textbook costs cause students to occasionally or frequently take fewer courses (35% of students), to drop or withdraw from courses (24%), and to earn either poor or failing grades (26%). Regardless of whether you have historically preferred the College Board number or the student survey number, a third fact that is beyond dispute is that surveys of students indicate that the cost of textbooks negatively impacts their learning (grades) and negatively impacts their time to graduation (drops, withdraws, and credits).”

Both as an instructor and an advisor, I see that student’s having the right course materials matters a good deal.  I have had students tell me about failing a course because they didn’t get the text. I’ve talked with students about strategies for reducing textbook costs plenty of times : by using older editions, by sharing textbooks with a classmate and so on.  And, the data reported confirm my suspicion is that high textbook prices hits the least savvy college consumers – first-year and first-generation college students – the most.

I am not quite sure where to place the blame for rising textbook costs.  When I have talked to publisher representatives about the high costs of new textbooks, they have told me that high costs stem from the now shorter-cycle for new textbooks. Because of efficient re-sale markets for textbooks and textbook rentals, the revenue stream for new textbooks is mostly done in eighteen months. Students not buying as many books may be part of that issue too.  Faculty’s insisting on the latest and new edition of a text – rather than using the old text with an errata sheet or a supplement may too be part of the problem.  All these issues should matter as part of the discussion on textbook costs.

Yet, the discussion is missing two important points.  First, texts and other assigned readings have a high relative value for college education.  Students (do and ought to) spend more time with the text than in class.  I find that when students do the reading for a class, they succeed in the class.   Or, at least, they succeed much more often.  They learn the material. Related to that point: More and more often, good lectures are available for free on-line; textbooks aren’t free.  And, reading the book still matters. Good books are worth paying for.

Second, put aside the issue of students failing courses for want of a text; I would expect as much.  Even a wonderful lecture is not a substitute for diligent study of a worthwhile textbook.   My wonderment is that so many students are able to pass courses without purchasing a textbook.  How can those students pass?  If faculty aren’t reinforcing the reading assignments through their lectures, assignments and examinations, textbooks are only a supplement – at best.  How integral can those those unreinforced readings be to the class? To put the point more directly, why are students spending thousands of dollars to take a class, but not willing to spend hundreds of dollars to buy the books necessary to succeed in a class? (Or, maybe have some students made a rational calculation that the books aren’t necessary? That result would be a genuine disappointment.)

On this issue, historical data – which I don’t have – might be helpful.  Still, jokes of weighty texts used – and only used – as doorstoppers have a lineage at least decades long.  Maybe students purchased texts in earlier eras, but their purchase is not an assurance of their use.  I will add that my intuition – formed mostly by glancing through older syllabi – is that most courses assign less reading than was common twenty or thirty years ago. So, in the end, we know something about expenditures, but we don’t know the relationship of expenditure to use.

I’ve written more than I expected, but what prompted my post was this:  According to data provided by the National Association of College Stores’ Student Watch in the article posted in The Chronicle above, Political Science and health majors spend around $800 dollars per year on texts – about $200 dollars  more than students in computer science and $250 dollars more than students in humanities.  I wonder how that result can be.  Books in STEM disciplines tend to cost more, and, I believe, most humanities courses require a good deal of reading… yet political science costs rank high.  I just wonder what’s driving those results. Issues of compliance, i.e., health sciences and political science students purchase what they’re supposed to purchase and other students don’t, course difficulty, i.e,those students are assigned more to read, or instructor assignment patterns all might play a role here. I don’t know. I wish that I did.



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