Monday, January 30, 2012

College Textbook Extortion

Like many of you, I paid dearly for a college education. Actually, I will be paying for many years to come. Yes, I received student loans. That just means the federal government fronted the bill. Repayment is my responsibility. The school has already been paid.

There are several things that bug me about college. One of them is the overwhelming attitude among faculty and administration that the student is the least important cog in the wheel. There is a sad lack of respect shown to the kids and adults trying to gain a higher education. Students are, after all, the only reason any of them have their job to begin with.

I can't state this enough. Students are the only reason why any college or university exists. To treat them like an annoyance is not only unfair, it's pathetically poor business. Make no mistake, students are, indeed, customers. High-paying customers. 

Textbooks are probably my biggest pet peeve. Students have no choice about securing the required course material. Often, that means buying a shiny, new copy of the latest edition. For those of you who haven't bought college textbooks recently, the cost is insane. I went to a small community college for my paralegal degree, but I still spent more than $500 every semester for books alone. Law books ain't cheap. 

Now, I know what many of you are thinking. Buy used books!  Used books are a better alternative than new, but they are becoming more scarce. At the end of every semester, I attempted to sell back some of my books. I usually sold one, if any. New editions come out nearly ever year. Suddenly the $200 textbook that was absolutely essential for Law 101 is worthless. The bookstore won't even buy it back, and the attendant at the counter acts as though it's asinine to think I could. 

On the rare occasion that I could sell back a book, the buy-back price was shocking. I have one business law book on my shelf right now that remains the newest edition. I paid $270. My best buy-back offer is $20. Ok, we all know that buy-back prices are ridiculous. But what are they making off these used books? This particular one sells used for $190. That's a hell of a profit! It's also a hell of a racket.

In my opinion, the college textbook scene is dangerously close to extortion. Students certainly can't attend a class without the required course material. And if they arrive at the bookstore 5 minutes after it opens on the first day of registration, good luck finding used books. 

New editions kill me. In my last semester, which was spring of 2010, I bought a shiny, new copy of the latest edition for my domestic law class. Thank God the professor, who is also a local judge, told us on the first day of class to take the books back to the bookstore and get the older edition. The reason why is that the new edition only contained four -- FOUR pages of new material. Four little pages changed the value of the older edition to zero on buyback for the previous semester's students. Luckily, Amazon was brimming with that "valueless" book for less than $20.

So I have established my issues with textbooks, but what could be the solution? There are a few. 

First, new editions. Why not offer the new book, but also offer the old one AND a supplemental packet instead of a completely new book? That could be a money saver. 

Also, ebooks. I was fortunate enough to get an ebook for one of my anthropology classes, and it was just as useful as a hard-bound copy. Unfortunately, most of my professors would not allow laptops in the classroom, so ebooks would not be acceptable across the board. I know that's not the rule everywhere, but it was at my college. Ebooks can't be a solution if they are not universally acceptable. 

Book rentals. Now, there's an idea!  Rentals are becoming more common, but they're still far behind new book sales. 

Book swaps. How awesome would it be to see the parking lot packed full when registration opens and students exchanging their books. 

Book publishers would probably cringe at these suggestions. After all, anything that saves students money also cuts into their profits. As a writer, it might seem like I am cutting off my nose to spite my face. But we all have to change with the times. Students have always been at the mercy of colleges and the required course material. By and large, they have few choices about saving money. 

I graduated with a nice, tidy debt that I will be paying off for many years to come. And mine doesn't compare to people who earn bachelors and graduate degrees. Students need some power. At one time, college was what a person did if he or she wanted to have a better education, get a leg up in the job market or train for a special field. Now, it's basically a requirement for survival in the real world. 

I've seen job listings for secretarial positions that required a bachelor's degree. Are you kidding me? I am not implying that secretaries don't have a tough job. I've been there; I know how hard a secretarial job can be. But why would a bachelor's degree be required to perform it? Sales people at cell phone stores -- bachelor's degree. Cosmetic sales clerks at department stores -- bachelor's degree. Fast food -- associate's degree. Sadly, the pay scale for these jobs hasn't changed along with the education requirements. If anything, it dips lower when inflation is factored in. 

It's a good thing, at least in a way, that the United States in general expects prospective employees to have an education. But if that education becomes mandatory, students will have even less power in their lives. Instead of Johnny and Susie deciding to go to college to have a better life, they'll go to college to hopefully (maybe) stay off welfare. 

College tuition is already painfully high no matter where you go. I paid $1,700 per semester, and that's much lower than at a traditional university. My son, who just graduated with a BS in biomedical science, will head off to medical school soon. By the time he graduates, he will have a tremendous amount of debt. He worked very hard and had two academic scholarships for his undergrad work, but he still took out loans to pay for his books. He won't have scholarships in med school. 

At the end of the day, student debt is sometimes debilitating. With the pathetic job market, some students will be behind on loan repayments within months of graduating.  Hardly anyone thinks about repayment when they are busy scheduling classes and buying outlandishly priced textbooks. But if even a small change can be implemented to help students, I think it should. 

Students need more choices. They need more respect in the college environment. They need someone to step up and call foul on the extortionist practices that encompass the mandatory, overpriced textbooks. 



  1. Carolee, I couldn't agree more. Excellent post!

    I've linked to this from my blog site, for what it's worth...not much, I'm afraid.

  2. Thank you! Something's gotta change. My son will have a debt that's more than my mortgage by the time he graduates medical school.

  3. I completely agree. I hate how professors demand that students buy THEIR textbooks, we barely use them if at all, and then the professors profit off them. It's illegal in my book (no pun intended)

  4. I completely agree. I hate how professors require students to buy THEIR textbooks, we barely use them, and the professors reap the profits. It sounds illegal in my book (no pun intended)

    1. Yep. Something has to be done. I don't know what it will be. But as they say, ya gotta have awareness before there can be a solution. I see no need for a whole new edition when 98% of the old edition is still accurate.