“Your total comes out to $373.84. Would you like a bag for your textbooks?”
For college students in the U.S., buying textbooks at a school bookstore, this phrase (with some equally painful, fill-in-the-blank amount) is all too familiar.
Students and their families already pay a premium for higher education. The outrageous cost of textbooks and required reading materials are impediments to learning for students who cannot afford them. As a result, these students may miss out on important lessons and underperform academically.
Allison Westerhoff, a senior majoring in communication at California Lutheran University, sais she “would rather take a lesser grade than spend over $500 on books.”
“I spent over $400 on textbooks for one semester. I had to pull out more money from my savings and eat soup for two weeks until I got paid again,” Westerhoff said in an email interview. “For those of us who are paying for school by ourselves or through loans or both, it’s scary to think that we may not be able to eat because we have to buy textbooks that month.”
What’s more, there doesn’t seem to be a proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. According to a recent article in the Seattle Times, textbook prices rose 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, with no end in sight.
Today, Collegeboard.com approximates the annual cost of textbooks to be roughly $1,200.
Perhaps even more frustrating to students are the professors who require students to purchase a textbook only to have it go unused for the duration of the semester.
Senior Bailey Marquez said she has had this experience nearly every semester.
“Every professor says we are going to need the book, so I pay at least $40 or $50 for one book and only look at it once – and all the tests are just on the power points and lectures the teachers give in class,” Marquez said.
Adding to this frustration are the buyback programs many college bookstores offer.
Students will sell their textbooks back to the bookstore for money, so that the bookstore can resell them to students for next semester, but at a fraction of what the textbook originally cost. It’s a lot like purchasing a new car – as soon as you drive it off the lot, it depreciates in value.
CLU’s bookstore, for example, offers students “up to 50 percent for your book’s original price,” according to their website.
That means if at the beginning of a semester, a student spends $100 on a new textbook that does not get used throughout the course, that same unused, mint-condition book will only garner $50 maximum at resale. It seems that no matter what, college students are stuck with a hefty textbook bill.
Some students question whether textbooks cost what they are worth. With advances in technology, like e-books and online classroom portals, should textbook costs still be as astronomically high as they are?
In keeping with this question, some professors choose to post the reading material online via a class forum, especially if the required reading section is small or used for a short segment of the class.
This alleviates the problem somewhat, rather than making students pay for an entire semester’s worth of books that will largely go unread otherwise.
Yet, the hidden cost of textbooks lies in the publication and organization, not in the printing. The pictures and infographics in a textbook all require licensing fees, the organization, layout design and the scholars behind the textbook all see a portion of the profit from textbook sales.
Peter Carlson, who has a doctorate in the history of religion, said he understands the struggles of paying for textbooks above and beyond the already hefty price of tuition alone.
However, he said that textbooks are worth the price if they are utilized in the classroom and is “shocked” to hear that some professors don’t utilize them to their fullest.
“I treat the books that I require for my classes as if they were another voice in the classroom discussion. If you don’t have the book, you’re not hearing the entire conversation,” Carlson said.
Unfortunately, these costs are then passed down to the students, who have no voice in what textbooks will be required for the class. Or do they?
“Course evaluations matter. If you feel that a book hasn’t been used enough or didn’t present the information in a way that made sense, your professors want to know,” Carlson said.
Published April 23, 2014