(Opinion) Textbooks

In an era characterized by corporate tyranny and impotent public policy, students must set aside hundreds of dollars strictly for textbooks when they return to their college campuses. Most students have to use aid money, some of which comes from for-profit student loan corporations such as Sallie Mae.

It is ironic that the self-proclaimed free market capitalists have imposed upon us a dire strait in which there is no choice regarding textbook purchases, and five publishers control over 85 percent of the market. The situation parallels that of the pharmaceutical industry — for which our Congress happens to be happily on the payroll — and henceforth insures that the industry profits well from its oligopoly and calculated disregard for the sick. Politicians talk incessantly about making college more affordable, but few and far between are willing to do what that would actually take, and has historically taken: increasing taxes on the wealthy few to lighten the youth's burden.

Between 2002 and 2013, the price of college textbooks rose by 82 percent. There have been zero grand innovations in textbook technology in that span — the increase is plainly due to rent-seeking and lack of competition.

Yet, while corporations and the billionaires associated with them increasingly make more money for less innovation and fewer services, many citizens — even those of modest means — can't fathom taxing them around 70 percent: the marginal rate they paid throughout the 1950s and ‘60s, and the level recommended by most economists. Many believe it would be better to let a whole generation wither on the vine, burdened with a generational debt never seen post-WWII.

To boot, this sacrificial lamb of a generation will also inherit trillions of dollars in national debt, largely the result of leaving American billionaires undertaxed while the country continued to spend trillions on two unpopular wars, and dragging the economy out of a Great Recession caused by the buoyant disregard of private banks during the housing bubble. There is also the looming threat of climate change to consider.

The price of a college textbook is a microcosm of everything currently wrong with higher education, and many things wrong with our nation.

In 2014, 65 percent of surveyed students said that they had decided against buying a textbook simply because it was too expensive. On that same note, 94 percent of the students who had skipped buying a required book said they were concerned that it would hurt their grade. This is a clear example of private means playing a role in collegiate success, which often determines success in life. On a larger note, most young people can’t even afford college to begin with. Indeed, money seems to play a role in everything in today’s laissez-faire America.

To help with homework, students can pay $14.99 every month for a Chegg subscription, and get answers for many of the problems assigned to them. On the higher-end of things, there are private tutors willing to do everything from math homework to writing entire essays.

At Ivy League universities — specifically, Princeton, Yale, Penn, Dartmouth and Brown — more students come from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire bottom 60. At Harvard, one of the most prestigious universities in America, 45.6 percent of undergraduates come from the top 3.8 percent of society.

The national minimum wage is $7.25. If the minimum wage grew with worker productivity, it would be $20; if it grew with the average wages of production and nonsupervisory workers, it would be $10.

Seeing as a typical textbook today can cost $120, a student would have to work about 17 hours to be able to buy that one book. Furthermore, a student attending college from 1973 to 1976 could have worked 306 hours at minimum wage and paid for their entire four-year public college degree. Today, a student would have to work at least 4,450 hours — 185 days nonstop — to be able to pay for their education.

Not to mention, typical part-time jobs are now being automated to save corporations more money. I paid for a significant portion of my own education by working as a glasses salesman, and while I am still quite young, I am seeing a job that I enjoyed and learned a lot from just a year or two ago being displaced by the masses, who continue to afflict us and themselves through careless shopping habits. We must shop in a way that keeps our own communities strong economically.

The publishers who supply our educational materials stay prosperous by putting almost no effort into their books from year to year, often simply shifting around graphics and then titling it a new book — quite ironic.

They release a new book every year to undermine the used-book market, and to keep their publishing costs high. Furthermore, homework is hardly even assigned from these books, and many classes require the purchase of an online access code that can neither be bought used nor returned at the end of the semester — this code is either purchased separately or priced in as a package.

There should be a law against unnecessary updates for college textbooks, since the cumulative effect of this is needless additions to student debt. There should also be more choice in the textbook market, including open-source textbooks that are free, and have the potential to break the traditional publishers’ lock on the market.

Students themselves can push for professors to use open-source textbooks. A catalog of them can be found here.

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