Outrageous textbook prices

By Jessica Fashant | gargoyle@flagler.edu
Photo by Johanna Falzone

The little brunette girl behind the counter at the school bookstore couldn’t stop smiling when she muttered the words “$203.52.”

I was speechless once I remembered that this wasn’t the total cost for all of my textbooks required this semester, but just for one.

The cost of “Personal Financial Planning,” a book required for one of my new classes, is the cost of more than two months of paying my cell phone bill, two months of car insurance, or only slightly lower than an entire month of my rent. I told her to forget it and put the book back. I wish it were a joke, but it seems that this is a regular occurrence that colleges are forcing onto students.

This new class of mine isn’t required for my major, but I’m taking it for the credits and because I thought it would be nice to learn how to manage my money a little better. So, I refuse to drop $200 for it. How can my teacher stand at the front of the class and ask me to have this book when he’s supposed to be teaching me to save? What happened to that eight month emergency savings fund that I’m supposed to be working on?

The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported in 2005 that the average college student spends about $900 a year on textbooks, about 20 percent of tuition and fees at four-year public universities. Textbook prices are rising at about four times the rate of inflation. New editions of books are priced significantly higher than old editions (on average twice inflation) and, to add insult to injury, the prices for the exact same textbook are often significantly lower in price in other countries such as the UK.

In 2008, Congress passed the Higher Education Opportunity Act which would require price disclosure when publishers sell them to teachers. It also ends a practice in which companies sell books and supplemental materials together, driving up costs. Several states have passed similar legislation.

I asked Christy Castelli, my teacher for Principles of Wellness and Fitness, what she thought about knowing beforehand about the price of textbooks when she’s choosing one for her class. She thinks that asking students to pay full price for a copy of Total Fitness and Wellness isn’t necessary, so she allows students to buy an older edition that can still be bought used for less than $12 online. Other Flagler College teachers — such as Maggie Hutchison, who teaches Computer Science — take into consideration the price of books when choosing them. However, there just aren’t enough teachers like her.

I agree it’s important to have updated editions of textbooks in such fields as medicine and technology, where the pace of change is great, but in many cases, the changes made to many textbooks are miniscule.

According to the Collegian, South Dakota State University’s independent newspaper, when new editions are compared with previous editions, very little has been added – a new chart here, a new table there. Sometimes, textbooks will change the order of example problems or simply change chapter names and their numbering.

Renting textbooks has been an option for students not willing to pay full-price. Sites such as Chegg.com and Campusbookrentals.com promise to save you big bucks. These Web sites provide students with the option of renting for a semester, quarter, or summer and charge rental fees by the book. The cost of “Personal Financial Planning” can be rented for an entire semester for less than $60 on both sites. By renting books, students can save over 50 percent on the price. However, keep in mind that you don’t get any money back after the book is returned.

Another solution to lower textbook prices would be to try and get more textbooks uploaded onto the Internet. Isn’t our generation the “computer savvy” one anyways? With books uploaded online, students can access everything electronically, and even if a small price would be charged with each book, someone would still be making money. I’m sure more students would be willing to do that than sharing books, or refusing to buy a book altogether and saving money.

Eric Frank and his business partner, Jeff Shelstad, founded Flat World Knowledge in 2007 and began operating in 2008. It is the first commercial open textbook publisher. It offers free online textbooks that can be printed and bound, $25 for black-and-white and $35-$39 for full-color copies. Open textbooks are free textbooks available online that are licensed to allow users to download, customize and print any part of the text. Professors can change content to fit their teaching styles.

Maybe the big print publishers will wake up and realize that students are no longer willing to pay outrageous prices for textbooks.

That $200 I saved went towards rent.

See the Bookstore’s response to Jessica’s opinion piece.

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