Chalk Talks - Students Call for Influence in the Textbook Market

Article excerpt


This Note examines the problem of high costs associated with textbooks, explores why the strategies employed to lower the cost of textbooks have failed and emphasizes the need for students to control the demand for textbooks in order to lower the prices.


A. A Complicated Problem with a Simple Solution

The price of textbooks strongly affects the availability of a college education because the ability to attend college is often dependent upon cost.1 With rising costs, more and more Americans are being excluded from higher education2 and those who do obtain college degrees are saddled with extensive debt.3 This debt often burdens students for years after they finish their education.4 This problem is no secret to those in power. For instance, in a 2008 interview Barack Obama stated that payments for student loans owed by him and his wife were more than the ten year mortgage on his home.5 The President's own situation powerfully illustrated the situation faced by millions of Americans.

The President also noted that the issue of cost involves more than just tuition; it includes the outrageous cost of textbooks. He stated that "[b]ooks are a big scam .... I taught law at the University of Chicago for ten years, [and] [o]ne of the biggest scams is law professors write their own textbooks and then assign it to their students. They make a mint. It's a huge racket."6

The industry, comprised of publishers, distributors, bookstores and universities, is well aware that students are vulnerable and nonetheless, has continued to take advantage of this inelastic market. For years the industry has raised prices, bundled books into expensive packages, and printed new editions too often.7

Rising textbook prices affect every American family because high cost may factor into a student's decision about whether or not to attend college. It also affects every American taxpayer because federal student loans are spent on textbooks and thus, taxpayer money ends up lining the pockets of publishing companies.8

The textbook market is indivisible from education.9 Thus, there is a good argument for insisting on legislative regulation and prevention of exorbitant pricing by the textbook industry. However, remedies must focus on the most important factor, the voice of the unheard student.

This Note focuses on adding the student voice to the equation. This could be accomplished by implementing student textbook reviews and by making students aware of the pricing for all textbooks prior to registration deadlines. It could also be accomplished by informing students, prior to purchase, if a book is returnable after the next semester and for what amount. Still another way it could be accomplished is by making pricing information available to faculty before book selection.10 Finally, reports could be generated that detail total textbook cost for a particular degree and caps on pricing. With these changes, students could make more informed decisions about which classes they will take.

B. Failed Strategies

Current strategies to lower textbook prices fail because they require action on the part of students but do not afford students any influence on the textbook market." Proposals12 for limiting the skyrocketing prices include publishing new editions less frequently, rental systems, nonprofit bookstores,13 unbundling textbook packages including CD's and other supplementary material and internet access to books.14 However, the important change needed is to empower students to control the demand of the textbook market and hold the suppliers accountable. Part of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, passed by Congress in 2008, concerns the textbook industry. The Act's summary states that:

[i]t requires publishers ... to include written information concerning: (1) the price the publisher would charge the bookstore associated with such institution and, if available, the price the publisher charges the public, for such items; (2) the copyright dates of the three previous editions of such textbooks; (3) substantial revisions to such items; and (4) whether such items are available in other formats, including paperback and unbound, and the price the publisher would charge the bookstore and, if available, the price the publisher charges the public, for items in those formats. …