A Challenge to Expensive Textbooks

When I return to Boston College at the beginning of a new semester I am always flooded with mixed emotions. For one thing, I am excited to see people I have not seen, or even completely forgotten about for several weeks or months. I may feel aimless or even bored, especially if I get back early and have a few days of freedom before classes start. But the start of a new semester can also be a bit jolting: it’s stressful to adjust to a different schedule of classes, especially in larger lectures with professors who spend very little time going over the syllabus and prefer to get right down to business.

The first week isn’t necessarily just for partying, especially in these big lectures. If you don’t get your books as soon as possible and follow along with the class, you will quickly get left behind. As a senior,  most of my classes are intimate seminars that require just a few small books, or none at all. But I remember taking general chemistry and other massive lectures freshman year that required expensive textbooks with online access codes.

The rush to find the required materials before the next class makes the first week even more difficult, especially for students with limited budgets. Going to the Bookstore is the most convenient, but it is likely the most expensive. It entails waiting in a long line at the beginning of the semester, and then again in an even longer line to return rented books at the end. You could buy or rent used books online, but they may take longer to come in, and while you’re waiting you’re falling behind on class work. And if you’ve never rented books online, know that the line to return them at UPS at the end of the semester is devastatingly long.

The library is one of the best resources BC has to offer, and everyone should take advantage of it. Most books listed as required reading for courses are available at the reference desk, though oftentimes there are only a few copies and other students have already claimed them. Usually you can track down one of the four hour-loan books and photocopy the pages you need. I really wished I had taken advantage of this tool earlier in my time at BC so I could have saved some money on textbooks. I wonder how many other students are unaware of how great the library is, and I wonder why the Bookstore is usually the more popular choice. I know that I have never had to wait in line when checking out books in O’Neill.

A lot of BC students can afford the convenience of buying or renting books at the bookstore or online. But for students who cannot, the beginning of the semester search for textbooks becomes a huge source of stress. Even if a student has a scholarship to pay for tuition, there is no guarantee that books and other supplies will be covered.

This is a huge problem, as the College Board estimates that the average student in the United States spends around $1,200 a year on books and supplies. And the expense seems to be growing. According to a study by the Government Accountability Office, between 2002 and 2013, the price of college textbooks rose 82 percent, nearly three times the rate of inflation. The prices of new textbooks have been rising incredibly fast—faster than food, clothing, cars and even health care.

I went back in my Amazon order history to find my freshman year General Chemistry textbook.

I purchased the third edition of this textbook (published in 2014) for $190. A quick search revealed that the fourth edition of this textbook  (published in 2016) costs $250. I did end up re-selling my book for a fraction of what I’d paid, but still, what gives? Why are textbooks so expensive anyway?

One episode of David Kestenbaum’s podcast “Planet Money” sought to answer this question. In Why Textbook Prices Keep Climbing, Kestenbaum interviews textbook authors, analysts and publishers to figure out why textbooks are so expensive, and why the costs continue to rise every year.

One explanation is what economists refer to as the principal-agent problem, ironically a topic covered in most first-year economics textbooks. Normally the person deciding to buy something is also the person paying for that thing. But with textbooks, professors often decide which books to use without considering the costs to the students. According to several professors interviewed on the episode, textbook sales-people advertise books to professors without ever mentioning prices, which makes sense when we consider that the professors aren’t the ones who have to pay for it.

Textbook companies are trying to appeal to the professors, their customers. This is supposedly why textbooks are getting much fancier and more expensive, filled with things that students don’t necessarily need. It made me think of the DVDs in the back of most textbooks that I have never used.

Something else I learned from this podcast, something I hadn’t thought about, was how the used textbook market is actually driving up the price of books. Before the internet, it was far more difficult to buy and sell used textbooks, but now students can easily ship books to students across the country when they are finished using them.

This means that publishers and textbook authors have less time to make money from their books. When a new textbook comes out students have to buy it full price, but they will likely just resell it at the end of the semester to the next year of students. Instead of selling a certain amount of books each year, the companies sell them the first year and that’s basically it. So textbook companies increase the price to make up for selling fewer books.

It sort of feels like we’re all losing here. The more research I did, the more relieved I felt to be finished buying textbooks—unless, of course, I decide to pursue a graduate degree. While libraries don’t completely solve the systemic issues of overpriced textbooks, for the individual, they can be extremely helpful in cutting costs.

There are so many awesome libraries on this campus. I recently discovered the Educational Resource Center in Campion Hall, which has all your childhood favorites. Next time you have to get a textbook, try searching for it on the library database and save yourself some cash.

Featured Graphic by Nicole Chan / Graphics Editor