That’ll Be a Gazillion Dollars, Plus Tax: The High Cost of Textbooks


I remember the first time I had to buy books as an undergraduate.  I took my schedule and dutifully pulled book after book off the shelves for my courses and tried not to hyperventilate as I mentally tallied the increasing tab. Since I was a literature major, I was relatively lucky. My trade paper readings were typically between $20 and $40 dollars, but there were usually three or four required books per class. In addition to the required books, there was frequently a required “course packet,” a collection of copywritten essays the professor had had copied and bound. These course packets could vary widely in price, but I do not recall any being less than fifty dollars.  With a six course load, books fees were hundreds of dollars every single semester.

Yet, looking at the science major’s cart beside me, I knew I was getting off easy. Just one of their hefty, hardcover textbooks was $200 or more. We all stood in line and wondered just how long a person could survive on Ramen noodles…

Now, I graduated (static…crackling…mumbling) years ago. Okay… ten years ago…with my Master’s degree. Since then, there have been incredible technological advances: no one knew a “Nook” or a “Kindle” or an “iPad” could even be a thing in the world in 2003. If we had known such innovations were coming, I’m certain most of us would have guessed ebooks would have made textbooks and other materials far cheaper for students.


Let me say that louder.


In fact, textbooks have gone up EIGHT HUNDRED AND TWELVE PERCENT since 1978!  Look!


Ummm, what? And why?

Both The Atlantic and Slate have recently written about this issue. In Slate, Kevin Carey puts some of the blame on professors who order up their “wish list” of course materials for their classes with little regard to how necessary the book is to their class. (I cannot say that this has been my experience as a professor, but perhaps that is because I teach in a relatively low-income district. We are all hyper aware of how much our students have to shell out for required materials and make every effort to minimize those costs.)

Carey also identifies another reason for the elevation of textbook costs: bundling.  Publishers include things like software or handbooks that you may not want or need, either as a student or a professor, but you have no choice in the matter; you have to buy the bundle.

Still, the move to digital textbooks is increasing  and this astronomical rise in prices is likely a last-ditch effort for the textbook publishing mob…errr.. business…to collect all the money possible while they can.

I wonder what’s going to happen to the price of Ramen noodles in ten years?