Carpe Diem

The college textbook bubble and how the “open educational resources” movement is going up against the textbook cartel

The chart above shows the percent changes since 1978 for the CPI series “Educational Books and Supplies” (which is mostly college textbooks), the CPI series “Medical Services,” the median price for new homes from the Census Bureau, and the CPI series “All Items.”  The 812% increase in the price of college textbooks since 1978 makes the run-up in house prices and housing bubble (and subsequent crash) in the 2000s seem rather inconsequential, and  the nine-fold increase in textbook prices also dwarfs the increase in the cost of medical services over the last three decades.  Compared to the 250% increase in the Consumer Price Index (CPI) over the last 34 years, college textbooks have risen more than three times the amount of the average increase for all goods and services.

Just like the ongoing home price increases and housing bubble of the last decade were unsustainable, there is now  growing evidence that rising college textbook prices and the “college textbook bubble” are also unsustainable, especially because of the growing number of low-priced and even free alternatives to over-priced $200-300 college textbooks.  The textbook alternatives are part of the growing “open educational resources” movement, which is “terrifying” the college textbook cartel, according to a recent Slate article titled “Never Pay Sticker Price for a Textbook Again.”

The Slate article features the free textbook alternative “Boundless Learning,” which was the focus of a CD post about a month ago.  Here’s an excerpt from the Slate article:

The Internet has made access to many kinds of information more flexible and less expensive. Novels, films, songs, photographs—all manner of things can be gotten from a broad array of providers for low prices, or for free, in digital form. Creators and distributors of intellectual property have struggled to balance the erosion of old business models with opportunities to sell their products in new and interesting ways.

Yet the college textbook industry has not only managed to insulate itself from this trend—it has moved in the opposite direction, using digital content as a way to charge more money. Add-on software gets packaged with physical textbooks and often has an expiration date, undermining the resale market for books. Students and parents pay the price, which often gets added on top of increasingly onerous student loans.

Now a startup called is trying to change that with a service it calls “textbook replacement.” Over the last decade, a great deal of academic content has been made available on the Internet, for free. The open educational resources (OER) movement has produced high-quality texts, videos, charts, problem sets, and other useful content in a huge array of subjects. Some of the authors are college professors who want to share their work at a larger scale; others are sponsored by nonprofits promoting education in the developing world that embrace the ethos of the open Internet.

 Bottom Line: In the face of increasing competition from the “open educational resources” movement, the traditional college textbook model will likely suffer the same fate as the traditional encyclopedia when it was challenged by Wikipedia.

8 thoughts on “The college textbook bubble and how the “open educational resources” movement is going up against the textbook cartel

  1. One problem with the text books is that for many of my MBA classes, if the books were more than a year or two old, much of the specific material was no longer of much relevance. The “basics” remained the same, but f anything that dealt with recent events or conditions, especially trying to look at the economy and business of the last few years, the texts were pretty poor teaching tools.

    Unfortunately, you don’t have the economies of scale when printing textbooks, and many of them have to be updated frequently to stay useful. Having written a number of training manuals myself, I can attest to the fact that this can be a very labor-intensive and time-consuming job.

    The best solution I can think of is to supply every student with an iPad or similar device, and use a suitable electronic publishing format. That way the material could be updated almost instantly as an APP, every semester if necessary, at a fraction of the cost of time and effort.

    Production and distribution costs drop to practically nothing. You can continue to properly compensate the authors for their work, while only requiring a nominal fee from the students. Better yet, the “books” can now become interactive, either with their own programming or with Internet access to additional material.

    I strongly suspect that the textbook publishers are about to price themselves out of business unless they wake up very quickly. All that needs to happen is for the universities, professors, and other experts in various subjects to realize that they can self-publish in this manner, catching the wave of the new tablet technologies. And once some of the critical textbooks are available in this format, what professor in their right mind is going require their students to mortgage their souls for books that at best are likely to be used for only one semester, and worse, are already out of date. Demand for more and better textbooks in this format will increase rapidly. (OK, I’m probably unusual in that I keep ALL of my textbooks, but it would be much easier to refer back to one if it were on my tablet, not packed away, and better yet if it were updated regularly to stay current.)

    An iPad costs less than one semester’s worth of the text books I needed! may be making a start, as is the material already being offered by some universities and on the Internet, but as soon as it is seen that there is money to be made here, I expect more textbook writers are going to bypass the traditional publishers and either publish on their own, or go through another sponsor, university, or group.

    Once upon a time you needed to have your books listed in a publisher’s catalog to have much hope of selling them. Now there are so many other options, one catalog listing would hardly be missed.

    • Sadly there in no perfect solution to making textbooks cheaper, there are ways of finding cheaper ones for now though. I agree with what you bring up about textbooks but this is all ideal situations. The world of business and education are complicated to say the least. But, thank you for sharing.

  2. The fundamental issue is that the value added to reference material by publishers is declining in value as marginal costs approach zero.

    Even the concept of the “textbook” is in peril. I have heard the phrase “the textbook is dead” from many university professors.

    When all the university students carry laptops, what is the point of having a course in textbook form. Even EPUB? Straight HTML pages work fine, if not better.

    It will be a rare author indeed who can produce an introductory work on Sociology which is so different and offers such value that Open versions offered by colleagues pale in comparison and students will happily fork over $200 for it.

    The reality is that new technologies have moved core textbooks into the infrastructure category and are better viewed as long-term investments than consumables.

    The new business model for publishers will not to be the ownership of essentially rewritten content, but the construction of curriculum matching structures to a school system’s order. Like a parking lot, it will last a long time and need patching up once in awhile but everyone will happily drive on it.

  3. Having just graduated from the university, I can attest to the insane costs of some books. Other books that are paperback reads are usually within reason. Our bookstore rented the books and they never could seem to tell you if the book was being used at a further term. So, you take the book back for your refund, which is sometimes generous (if the book is being used again by Biology, Sociology, Physics, some class where information doesn’t change much, like beginning psuch classes, where it’s mostly theory from the time of Freud or Marx forward). When I was in college back in the 80s, a chemistry book was good for at least two terms, maybe three. Or a language book. Books should be offered on a rental basis, always much less than the retail book price. And going to Amazon or eBay or Chegg to look for used books is advised. Ask other students what they know about buying and returning books. You can save a lot of money with minimal research. Think of it as a learning opportunity :)

  4. I manage two college bookstores & I have to say that rentals have really made a huge impact In the college bookstore. It’s the faculty that makes the decisions about textbook adoptions & the longevity of the textbooks. Publishers like to entice the faculty with “extras” to build their sale, which oftentimes are not utilized by the students that purchase them. There’s a lot more competition in this day & age than the publishers have had in years past because of Internet sales. Wholesalers are also taking a bite out of the publishers’ profits & that’s why you see new editions rolling off the presses at a higher rate.

  5. I have read many of the flat earth and other low priced textbooks in my field- and found them poor- texts that would not have survived the “traditional review process” since they were so poorly written, illustrated, and frankly not “state of the art” in the discipline. Coffee at Starbucks is now about $2 for what once cost 10 cents. So what one compares is critical. I agree that the publishing business is facing a revolution more significant than moveable type. But a few years ago I completed an upper level textbook that took me five very intense years to write; it was not the kind of thing that could be written in six months – the problem I grapple with is why the “leaders” of any discipline would devote years of their lives that could be otherwise used for original research and scholarship if their reward is 15% of $12 -particularly for higher level textbooks for smaller classes? Imagine doing original illustrations for an organic chemistry textbook?

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