Blair Horner: Colleges Open And Students Experience Textbook Sticker Shock

Aug 25, 2014

This week marks the beginning of the semester for most colleges in New York State.  As students begin their next collegiate experience, families tackle how to pay for it.

American higher education has seen a dramatic shift in who pays for public college.  America was once a society that valued college education and put its collective money where its mouth is by funding the bulk of the cost of that education.

But since the 1980s, there has been a shift in the burden of paying for public college from government to the families of those in college.  The clearest evidence of that shift has been the drastic slashing in state dollars going to public colleges and the dramatic increase in tuition.  In New York State, for example, the average tuition and fees charged at SUNY was about $1,673 in 1987, today that cost has jumped 340% (for academic year 2013-14, SUNY average tuition and fees was $7,400).

During that same period, the income of typical families has largely been stagnant, which has resulted in families having to take out loans to cover the costs of rapidly increasing tuition and fees.  The nation now has over $1 trillion in outstanding college debt and in New York State a student attending SUNY now has an average debt of over $25,000.

Adding to those costs has been the rapid increase in the price of textbooks.

Over the past decade, college textbook prices have increased by over 80%, or at three times the rate of inflation. Textbooks are one of the largest out-of-pocket expenses for students and families trying to afford college every year.  Students are spending $1,200 on average on books and supplies this year, according to the College Board.

The underlying cause for high prices comes from a fundamental market flaw in the publishing industry. In a typical market, there is a direct relationship between consumer and provider. The consumer exercises control over prices by choosing to purchase products that are a good value, and the competition forces producers to lower costs and meet demand. In the textbook industry, no such system of checks and balances exist. The professor chooses the book, but the student is forced to pay the price. Because of this, the student is, in essence, a captive market.

Without the ability of the student to choose a more affordable option, publishers are able to drive prices higher without fear of economic repercussion.  It is also important to note that just five textbook companies control more than 80% of the nearly $9 billion publishing market, giving them a near market monopoly and protecting them from serious competition.

Recently, alternatives to brand-new, print edition textbooks have become widely available through rental programs, used book markets, and e-textbooks. While these markets offer students upfront savings, their prices are still dictated by the prices of the new print editions.

Despite the growth of used book programs, rental markets, and e-textbooks, student consumers are still captive to the high prices of the traditional market.  To ease the burden of high textbook prices, the nation needs to give students a better, low-cost alternative outside of the traditional market. That alternative is open textbooks.

Open textbooks are faculty-written and peer-reviewed like traditional textbooks, but they are published under an open license, meaning they are free online, free to download, and affordable in print. 80% of students surveyed said they would do significantly better in a course if the textbook were free online and a hard copy was optional, which is exactly how open textbooks work.  Open textbooks save students $100 per student, per course on average.

And there is movement in the direction of such open textbooks.

More than 2,500 faculty members from 750 U.S. colleges have signed the Faculty Statement on Open Textbooks, which expresses their intent to consider using high-quality open textbooks whenever appropriate.

The government can help by investing funds and programmatic support to create more open textbooks. Investment from the government would fast-track the production of vital high-quality classroom ready texts, as well as providing colleges and faculty the resources they need to use available open textbooks in their classroom immediately.

The Washington Open Course Library has developed open course materials – including open textbooks – for the 81 highest enrolled courses in Washington’s community and technical colleges. The program, funded by an initial investment of $1.8 million, has so far saved students $5.5 million since its inception, including $2.8 million in student savings so far this semester.

Clearly, society benefits from a well-educated workforce and citizens.  Reducing the cost of getting that education should be at the top of policymakers’ list during the upcoming academic year.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.


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