Carpe Diem

The era of the textbook cartel and $300 textbooks is ending

textbooksI’ve written before about the unsustainable college textbook bubble, which is illustrated in the chart above. Between January 1998 and September 2013, the CPI for college textbooks has increased by more than 144%, compared to an increase of only 44.4% for the CPI for all items, and an increase of only 0.6% for the CPI for recreational books. In real terms, the cost of college textbooks has increased by more than 69% over the last 15 years, while at the same time the real cost of recreational books has fallen by more than 30%.

The reason that the college textbook bubble is on an unsustainable price trajectory and is already starting to show some initial signs of deflating is because of the increasing amount of competition for the college textbook market. For example, here are some alternatives to the best-selling Principles of Microeconomics by Greg Mankiw, which has a list price of $306.

a) For only $19.99, students can purchase a “Full online text alternative with SmartNotes (that summarize long text into the key points and the terms students need to study effectively), quizzes and flashcards” from Boundless that exactly matches the material in the Mankiw textbook.

b) Textbook Media Press offers the textbook “Principles of Microeconomics by Timothy Taylor starting at only $19.95 for an online version of the book. Alternatively, students can buy the “digital bundle” version of the book for $27.95, which adds downloadable PDF chapters for self-printing and off-line studying to the online version, or a black-and-white paperback print version for $38.

c) For $35, students can get online access to the book “Principles of Microeconomics” (by Libby Rittenberg and Timothy Tregarthen) from Flat World Knowledge. A black-and-white hard copy text costs only $50.

OpenStax College is another new challenger to the textbook cartel. They just started last year, so the selection of textbooks is currently limited to about five titles (Statistics, Anatomy, Physics, Sociology and Biology), but they’ve got lots of new titles scheduled for release in Winter 2014 including Principles of Macroeconomics, Principles of Microeconomics, Chemistry and US History. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education article, “OpenStax is working to build a catalog of 25 textbooks that will pack the biggest possible punch for students. Its offerings are being developed based on college courses with the most students in the United States—and those with the most expensive textbooks.”

And what sets OpenStax apart from the other competitors is that they are offering free, open source textbooks, here’s more information from its website:

OpenStax College is a nonprofit organization committed to improving student access to quality learning materials. Our free textbooks are developed and peer-reviewed by educators to ensure they are readable, accurate, and meet the scope and sequence requirements of your course. Through our partnerships with companies and foundations committed to reducing costs for students, OpenStax College is working to improve access to higher education for all. OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University and is made possible through the generous support of several philanthropic foundations.

Here’s a video about OpenStax:

Bottom Line: Hear that hissing sound? It’s the sound of the college textbook bubble starting to deflate…… The era of the college textbook cartel and $300 college textbooks is ending.

5 thoughts on “The era of the textbook cartel and $300 textbooks is ending

  1. The rising costs of textbooks is well known. And, yes, alternatives are emerging – as the author of the article notes. However, rather than simply listing lower priced alternatives, it would be more useful to readers if future articles addressed either (a) the reasons for escalating prices, (b) whether these new business models are sustainable, (c) if new alternatives offer sufficiently satisfactory replacements, or (d) all of the above.

  2. The rise didnt start in 1998 though. I bought a calculus text in 1985 and another in 1996. In 1985 it was $47 in 1996 $130. Interestingly the material was identical chapter for chapter subsection per subjection. I had to do this survey to prove my 1985 course covered the requirements for my second degree.

    The crazy thing is nothing has changed in calculus in 100 years. I found my dads calculus book from the 1950s and it was the same as well – but with fewer pictures. Why this recycled materials goes up in polynomial fashion rather than linear with inflation is beyond me.

  3. We wish it would (textbook price bubble deflate).
    One problem here is that enough uncaring or lazy professors assign the text they like without consideration of the cost, and if homework or test-preparation is based on the text, students are too scared to use an alternative text.
    After all, the other BIG cost is tuition, and one reason text book price increases were accepted is that they are small compared to tuition. After all, to you want to do less than well in a class for which you already borrowed thousands for the tuition?
    And the expensive text may come with some web site access needed for home work, thus requiring to pay through the nose for some access license, if you have bought last quarter’s used text.–
    And we can safely assume that once OpenStax or similar gets any traction, the textbook publishers will try to kill them with law suits under copyright law.
    A similar problem is with teacher-assigned calculators or software in high school: It pains me that so many poorer parents shell out for a Microsoft Office package (in addition to a laptop), when the free OpenOffice would have done, as teachers require it. (My children survived HS with OpenOffice, but thought of their dad as a cheapskate). Or an $120 calculator, where there was an equivalent $35 model from another manufacturer.

    • Heck, this was a serious problem when I was in college in 1960. It was well known then that professors wrote the textbooks they taught from and issued new editions every other year to maximize their income. It wasn’t so much that they WANTED to gouge their students, they just looked on their students as revenue sources and felt no empathy for them. The textbook publishers are also at fault. They issue textbooks that are filled with useless graphics on glossy paper that allows them to claim they are charging for a quality product, and then triple the price. High school textbooks are terrible for this very reason, especially in math and history.

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