According to a report published by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), the average American college student now spends approximately $1,200 per year on books and supplies. This is a striking number, but it is even more striking when considering that this is on top of the tuition at four-year, private universities such as Boston College, which is typically over $50,000 per year. According to BC’s Facts & Figures, 70 percent of students received financial aid in the 2014-15 school year, with the average need-based financial aid package being $36,000.
Based on these financial aid figures, many students at BC clearly cannot afford to spend $1,200 on top of all of the other costs of attendance. So, what do students do when they can’t afford textbooks? Are they taking out additional loans? Are they getting jobs or working longer hours? The USPIRG provides some insight into these questions, revealing that 65 percent of students have simply declined to buy a textbook for class due to the cost.
This statistic is alarming for several reasons. If a student hasn’t purchased a textbook for a class, then he or she may be less likely to complete the assignments that are from that required textbook. Although textbooks may be available through the library’s course reserves, this is only a Band-Aid solution because not all professors make course reserves available, and even when they do, students must compete with each other to check them out of the library because there are often only a handful of copies available. Therefore, some students will inevitably be unable to complete every assignment if many students are relying solely on course reserves.
Students being unprepared or underprepared for class has far-reaching consequences. The student may have a difficult time following the professor’s lesson plan, may receive poor grades on assignments that draw from the textbook’s readings, and may learn less. That this is happening on such a wide scale is also unsettling.
Additionally, the USPIRG report finds that 94 percent of the students who had not purchased a textbook because it was too expensive were concerned that not having a textbook would impact their grades. These concerns can surely be accompanied by a number of other issues, but primarily, these students may be stressed about being underprepared. This stress can then impact students’ health—BC University Health Services’ (UHS) website notes that headaches, nausea, and depression are all symptoms of stress. UHS also notes that trouble focusing and difficulty concentrating are also symptoms of stress, and so being concerned about not having a textbook for one class may also negatively impact a student’s performance in other classes for which he or she would otherwise be prepared.
With all of the obvious negative impacts that can result from such expensive textbooks, this seems like a lose-lose situation for all parties involved. When some students are unprepared for class, all of the students suffer because the class would be stronger if everyone were prepared and could actively participate. The University also loses out in the long run, when students are stressed at school and struggle in class, the University’s culture suffers, and the school becomes less appealing to prospective students. Additionally, alumni may be less likely to be involved in and support BC if they struggled or were stressed because of high textbook prices when they were students.
The party that is ultimately responsible for forcing these high costs on students—the textbook publishing industry—is losing out as well. It has an essentially captive market in that its customers, the students, are required by their professors to buy its textbooks. Yet, even with a captive audience like this, 65 percent of its target market has decided not to purchase at least one textbook anyway because of the price. This clearly shows a poor pricing strategy on the side of the publishers. Drawing on my very, very basic knowledge of microeconomics (a course for which I spent over $250 on textbooks in the BC Bookstore), this seems to be a clear example of a market failure.
And so I’m left rather confused about almost every party involved. I understand why students aren’t buying textbooks—they can’t afford them. But I do not understand why professors at BC and at so many other universities across the country impose such expensive required textbooks on their students. I’m also confused as to why university administrations are complicit in allowing such expensive textbooks to be sold on their campuses. I’m confused as to why the publishers charge so much for their textbooks in the first place when they would likely have higher sales if they had lower prices.
Textbook publishers and the campus bookstores that distribute them are at the root of this problem. The bookstores may be able to argue that they also sell used textbooks and rent textbooks to students at lower prices than it would cost to buy new textbooks. Although this is better for students, used and rental textbooks are not always available for every class, so this solution is not feasible for all students.
With all of the negative impacts associated with the current textbook publishing space, a solution needs to be found. The textbook publishers must come up with a way to charge less. As students and as a university, the most effective way of dealing with this would be to make sure that our voices are heard—we need to make sure that publishers understand that they are charging too much, and so I urge professors to stop assigning new, expensive textbooks. If professors fail to do this, then I urge students to have an honest conversation with professors so that they will find ways around expensive textbooks and stop this industry from taking advantage of students.
Featured Image by Emily Fahey / Heights Editor