I came across this post on Maud Newton’s blog, where she’s quoting from GW Bush about fixing interest rates on students loans (apparently, this is a new change in the student loan program), despite the fact that it will potentially (likely, actually) allow corporations and other borrowers to get money with a lower interest rate. Click here for a more complete version of the story. Yet another example why it is clear that the phrase “the education president” was meant to be ironic.
In any event, on an issue that is perhaps a bit closer to my heart (because of my recent failures as a textbook writer) is this Washington Post article (which I found via Maud’s blog), “Swelling Textbook Costs have College Students Saying ‘Pass.'” Here’s a nice quote:
Textbook prices have been rising at double the rate of inflation for the past two decades, according to a Government Accountability Office study. In Virginia, more than 40 percent of students surveyed by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said they sometimes just do without.
That’s been increasing, said Jennifer Libertowski of the National Association of College Stores; recently, the group found that nearly 60 percent of students nationwide choose not to buy all the course materials.
Sixty percent! Here’s some other fun facts from the article:
- Textbooks and supplies costs an average of $900 a year, and it doesn’t matter much if you’re attending “Most Expensive and Quaint U” or “Cheap Cheap CC,” the books are about the same and the cost is about the same– but a greater percentage of the bill for students at Cheap CC, who are liable to be paying most of their expenses by working anyway.
- According to the GAO study on which this article is based, textbook costs tripled between 1986 and 2004.
- And then there’s this passage: “Students have plenty of conspiracy theories for the rising prices: Greedy publishers who change the cover just to charge more. Self-absorbed professors who assign their own masterpieces or forget to list the books till it’s too late to find a used copy. Overpriced stores.” The article tries to correct some of the “conspiracy theory” here in the next paragraph, suggesting that the profit margin on textbooks is low (at least compared to things like sweatshirts and mugs). Riiight. That’s why no one is making money off of used textbooks or why the price of new textbooks keeps going up for no apparent reason.
Arguably, English studies and composition is “less guilty” in some ways than other fields in terms of the overall cost issues because our textbooks tend to have less expensive “production values” than books for art or the sciences which are routinely filled with hundreds of elaborate color images. But English– particularly first year composition, the one course that just about every college student in this country has to take–is also a cash cow for textbook publishers. I once had a book rep explain to me that the profit margin on the most expensive textbooks (the ones in the sciences and the arts with lots of color printing and such) is actually a break-even proposition for publishers; conversely, because first year composition books are so cheap to make and the volume is so high, the profit margin on those books is quite large.
I’m not saying that textbook companies don’t serve a valuable purpose in the composition community; there’s a lot of textbooks that I have used in the past that I like a great deal, and I also know, that when I started teaching first year composition many moons ago, I learned a lot from the textbook that was assigned to both my students and to me. I do and I will continue to use textbooks in my teaching, though nowadays, I also tend to find out how much students are going to have to pay students before I make the adoption decision.
But I also think that textbook companies don’t do enough to make materials available at a more reasonable cost, mainly because many of these folks still seem to not “get it” when it comes to electronic publishing, and also because they are terrified about doing anything that might cut into profits.
Take my efforts at trying to publish a version of my textbook online. This is a project in which McGraw-Hill has decided to more or less abandon. Based on a review scheme that I think is debatable at best (but that’s another post), they’ve decided that the interest out there is not great enough to justify a publishing run for my book. I’m not happy about that, but okay, these things happen. So, at no cost to McGraw-Hill, I suggested that I make it available electronically. To date, the answer has been a combination of “no” and a non-answer, and as far as I can tell, the main reason why McGraw-Hill doesn’t want me to publish the book I wrote on a web site– a book project that they would continue to own, I might add– is because some people might actually read and/or use the book, and, somehow, this will cut into the profits of the print books, despite the fact that the review process suggested that that many folks aren’t interested in it.
But enough about my problems.
My point simply is this: according to this article, a surprising number of students are already self-opting out of textbook purchases. If the prices keep going up, it seems entirely possible that teachers will seek other options, too.