Not a new subject by any means (just see Robert’s post from April), but a colleague sent us a link today to a Friday Op-Ed in the NYTimes (again, subscription required — sorry) about, well, the high cost of textbooks:
IN time for the new school year, the Government Accountability Office has released a sobering report on the soaring price of textbooks. Over the past two decades, the report tells us, “college textbook prices have risen at double the rate of inflation.”
We’re used to paying $25 for a hardcover novel, but my casebook on contracts now sells to students for $103, and the best-selling general chemistry textbook (co-authored by my father-in-law) costs $148. At state universities, textbooks and supplies account for 26 percent of all student fees, including tuition. At junior colleges, they are a whopping 72 percent. (emphasis added)
While I agree with the author (and the GAO, I guess) that textbook prices have gotten out of hand, I think he’s not in the best position to make the case, being an author himself (yes, yes, I know the publishers are a big part of the problem — but it’s that “appearance of a conflict” thing). I actually missed that little gem in the second paragraph when I originally read the article.
The author goes on compare the situation of professors assigning texts to doctors prescribing drugs: neither is concerned about the cost. So his solution is also drawn from the prescription drug world, akin to an HMO:
This “textbook maintenance organization” wouldn’t require a huge centralized bureaucracy. Universities would probably give professors a textbook budget per student. Those who exceeded the budget would have to seek their deans’ approval. Some enlightened colleges might even give a share of the savings to professors who don’t use up all of their budgets.
Yeah, that’ll happen. Pass those savings right back to the professors. Use the textbook from the lowest bidder. But seriously, why restrict ourselves to the solutions provided in the health professions? I think you’ll see a lot more folks using online resources. Heck, I just got a flyer from O’Reilly last week pushing safariU, which is a “build a custom textbook” operation. Once they get the kinks (technical and administrative) worked out, this looks to be a more workable solution.
Quite honestly, for many of my courses, available textbooks have too much or not enough stuff. Customized textbooks make a lot more sense (and they certainly sound sexier than “textbook maintenance organizations”).
I should point out that this isn’t the only solution. Here at Western, we have a rental policy for textbooks. Students pay some fixed fee to rent all their textbooks. Many faculty hate this for a number of reasons that I won’t go into here, but students generally love it.
Here, though, is where the author finally lost me:
Such a system at the university level would also do away with some conflicts of interest. Because at the moment, professors’ incentives in choosing textbooks are in some ways more distorted than doctors’ incentives in choosing drugs. You see, I earn a $10.30 royalty on every copy of my textbook that a student buys. Instead of just trying to get the best book for my class (and to do so I should weigh both quality and price), I might also consider assigning my own book and increasing my profit.
Don’t you think you’d buy into his argument more if he wasn’t assigning his own textbook and reaping his $10.30 per student royalty?
But regardless of the author’s credibility, I think his proposed solution is too narrow. Still, it’s clear that an alternative to these textbooks is a critical need.