Commentary: Student Frustration with the Flawed Textbook Market Is Justified

by Peyton Lofton


Dozens of student government executives wrote a letter recently urging the Department of Labor to block a merger between two giants of the textbook industry. In May, McGraw-Hill and Cengage announced they would be pursuing a merger. As two of the five major textbook publishers that currently have 80 percent of the market, this merger would form the second-largest textbook publisher in the US.

Students are reasonably frustrated with the textbook market. Students spend an average of $1,200 a year on books and access codes to online course materials. That number has risen by over 1,000 percent since 1977. Textbook prices are so high that students often sacrifice their grades to avoid paying them. A 2014 study from the US Public Interest Research Group found that nearly two-thirds of students decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive. Textbook prices are hindering the education of America’s students.

But students will still be stuck with high bills at the bookstore even if the merger doesn’t happen. Major textbook publishers avoid direct competition with one another by not publishing in subjects where one company has found success. Students will not see lower textbook prices without new, innovative alternatives to the conventional textbook market.

The textbook market is far from a free market. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) put it best when he tweeted, “We’ve seen what happens when there is too little competition in this industry – prices soar leading to more student debt.” Senator Durbin’s tweets indicate that textbook costs are a bipartisan concern requiring a bipartisan solution.

Free and open markets result in high-quality products and services to the consumer at a low cost. But the textbook market is one with a captive consumer base propped up by university bureaucrats and administrators. Prices run wild because students are unable to pick their textbooks.

Textbook publishers are a cartel running rackets on America’s students. A sales representative from a larger publisher even admitted his job is “to find a way to buy off the professor.” Considering student loan debt is already at a crisis level in the US, with $1.5 trillion owed, students cannot afford to be further indebted by the textbook cartel.

Universities and professors need to reevaluate their policies and incentives when deciding which textbooks to assign. Administrators should consider the needs of students and reject the bribes from textbook publishers. Professors should be celebrated, not reprimanded, for finding less expensive textbooks to assign their classes. In order for prices to drop, the cartel’s grip on students must be loosened.

Universities and students should also work together to identify alternatives to the traditional textbook. Professors and universities around the country are switching to open-source textbooks. Open-source books are released online at no cost under a specific license that allows users to use and distribute the content as they see fit. University administrators should consider programs that make open-source books accessible to professors and students.

Open-source solutions keep money in students’ pockets. The University of Maryland’s Open Source Textbook Initiative has saved students an average of $141 per course. At five courses a semester for four years, students save an average of $5,640, or nearly 20 percent of the average student loan debt.

Establishing open-source libraries is a daunting task, but when there’s a will – or in this case, an economic demand – there’s a way. Universities can start by compiling what content is already available and then work with students to identify what content is still needed.

They can then produce the needed content and library infrastructure using university funds or by partnering with private, philanthropic organizations. The state of Washington partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2010 to create the Washington Open Source Library. The project cost $1.8 million but saved students $5.5 million in its first four years.

Textbook prices are high, but preventing a merger between McGraw-Hill and Cengage will do nothing to address the problem. University administrators must refrain from accepting Big Textbook’s bribes and should instead embrace the market’s innovation. Open-source libraries are low-cost alternatives to traditional textbooks; students should be able to choose them.

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Peyton Lofton is studying Political Science and French at Tulane University. Find him on Twitter












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