Wednesday, July 14, 2004

the fraud of college textbooks

every time i call my college bookstore to see if the adoptions for the fall 2004 semester are finished, the answer is always no. when i ask how long it will be until they are done, the answer is always a week later than it was the last time.

day the date moved from the last week of july to the first week of august. a couple of weeks ago it was the second week of july.

why is this important?

cost.

this editorial and this story come to the same conclusion: college books are a ripoff.

here's how it works:

publisher produces book. professor adopts book. publisher sells lots of books to lots of students. many of these books are used only for one semester, yet can cost anywhere from $50 to $200, depending on the book. publisher makes lots of money. students shell out through the nose.

at the end of the semester, many books can, in theory, be resold. buying a used book is supposed to lower the cost for students. but publishers don't like used books: they don't get paid again when they're resold.

the publishers solution to this problem: print new editions, sometimes with astoundingly little new material -- or even less material -- that the old edition. because there are always fewer used books available in any given semester than there is demand, there is alwas some need for new books. but if the old edition has gone out of print, the need for new books can't be met. instead, because there are no new books of the old edition available to meet the gap in supply, professors are forced to adopt the new edition.

when the profs adopt a new edition, the value of the old books drops to the point where selling them becomes impossible. for courses that have nothing to do with your major but are required (like an algebra course for a music major), it's unlikely you'll want to keep the books. but since there's no market because editions have changed, you're stuck. you can either keep the book or throw it out, but you can't recover any of your investment.

some students (like me) are trying to turn to the internet to buy books, where used books can sometimes be had for as little as 10% of the new cover price (compared to 50%-75% of the new cover price, for books in the same condition, at campus bookstores). the downside is that frequently shipping takes two to three weeks.

this means that students need notice of adoptions so that they can order their books and have them in time for the start of classes.

however, because campus bookstores are big moneymakers for schools, schools have absolutely no incentive to cooperate by publishing adoption lists in enough time to make a difference. instead, students are faced with the stark choice of potentially falling weeks behind while they wait for their books to arrive, or buying the campus offering at unnecessarily inflated prices.

the issue is all the more stark for community college students like me. community college students fall into one of three broad categories: students who've failed elsewhere and need the fresh start a community college offers, students who are still trying to figure out what they want to do with their educational goals and don't want to spend the money it takes to figure that out at a four-year college, or (like me) students who can't afford a four year college and are instead trying to get started with a cheaper option. at my school, i typically budget one to one and a half times the tuition fees ($41 per credit hour) for books.

that's right, gang. i pay as much for books as i do for the right to attend in the first place.

this means that lowering the costs of my books significantly lowers the cost of my education.

but when my school doesn't publish the list (or even make it available to students who ask), i'm left with the choices of falling behind or paying.

publishers have no incentive to change this system because they make more money selling new books than used ones. schools have no incentive to change this system because they make a mint at the bookstore. professors have no incentive to change this system because their books are given to them for free by the publishers (who of course want the professors to adopt the books).

the only people who have any incentive to change this system are the ones who can not: the students. we can not vote with our dollars and expect to pass, and we can't change to friendlier schools because there aren't any.

something to consider once i get my law degree:

bookstores not making adoption lists available in a timely fashion (which they must have so they can stock their own books) could be viewed as an unlawful restraint of trade. and since i can potentially purchase my books from out of state, the case is federal, not state.

the next day: the bookstore will not give me the isbn numbers of adopted books. "that's our policy," they say. texas open records request to follow.

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