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Textbook Ripoffs: Why college leaves kids in debt

One of next fall’s English 101 students e-mailed yesterday. This is a kid who was in one of my other courses and decided to take the upcoming class because she liked my style (read: she got a good grade). She asked how much we will be using the textbook and then said she went to the bookstore and found it was selling for $150. She’s not eligible for financial aid this semester and says she doesn’t think she can afford that much. She’s doing the best she can, she adds, to stay out of debt.

A hundred and fifty bucks. For a freshman comp book. That, my friends, is a $30 paperback.

It would be one thing if the book contained a lot of difficult-to-typeset equations (though most publishers use LaTex for that purpose—works like magic, and it’s freeware!). And it would be one thing if the book contained a lot of expensive four-color graphics. Or if writing a freshman comp book required a great deal of arcane and difficult-to-acquire knowledge.

But none of these apply. When I say this thing is a $30 paperback, I’m not kidding. It’s printed on decent paper and it does use color on almost every page. But otherwise…

Graphics? There’s little in this book that can’t be done with an ordinary word processor, and nothing in it can’t be accomplished—easily—with InDesign.

Permissions? It doesn’t cost $150 a copy to get permission to reprint a few sample articles. When I published my textbook, The Essential Feature (which, BTW, sells for a mere $40), I was amazed to discover how many publishers will give away rights to reprint if you murmur the words “and my publisher is a nonprofit.”

Expertise? Research clout? Gimme a break! This is a freshman comp book! A smart graduate student could write it. A competent junior editor in her 20s could write it. What is required is basic literacy, an acquaintance with mechanics and the structure of essays, and passing familiarity with MLA style. That’s it. This is not Laboratories in Mathematical Experimentation: A Bridge to Higher Mathematics!


So I say to the kid, “The school just started a book rental program. Call the bookstore and see if you can rent the thing.”

Says she, “I did. They told me this text isn’t included in the rental program.”

I call up on the computer. Lo! One vendor is peddling the thing for $14.95 used. New copies are going for as low as $40, though most sellers try to extract $80 or $90. This morning I see the $14.95 copy is gone—hope the kid snagged it. If not, she may manage to snare the one that’s selling for $17.90. That’s more within reason.

Even at $90, a book like this is a shameless rip-off. But in the “shameless” department, what excuse is there for campus bookstores to gouge kids $150 for a book that’s overpriced at $90?

The departmental chair told me we are required to order the book and we are required to use it in the classroom. When he heard that another faculty member remarked to me that she knew of an instructor who was not having his students buy the book but instead was using material freely available on the Internet (yes, Virginia, everything in this book—even most of the essays used as examples—is available on the Net), he demanded, with arched eyebrow, to know who this guy was. Luckily, I didn’t catch his name.

Not that I’m suggesting any collusion with a rapacious textbook industry. To the contrary. A department can’t have every faculty member wildcatting Internet sites as study material and hope to maintain any pretense of academic integrity. The chair would fail to do his job if he didn’t see to it that all the courses came up to the standards set out by the institution.

Nevertheless, it’s not surprising that young people commonly graduate from college $40,000 in the hole, more debt than they’d incur by purchasing a Lexus sedan. At $150, this textbook would cost my student almost two-thirds of what she’d pay to register for the course!

So, if you have a kid on the way to college, or you’re en route to those ivied precincts yourself, what can you do to protect your checkbook?

First things first: As soon as the bookstore puts the next semester’s texts on the shelves, pay the place a visit. Note all the required texts, and write down their ISBNs. The ISBN is a number that appears on the copyright page, usually on the reverse side of the title page; it’s unique to each specific edition of a book. The ISBN for The Longman Writer, for example, is 978-0-205-7399-8. Knowing this number will ensure that you get the correct edition—in the case of this book, that’s important, because earlier versions do not include the revised 2009 MLA style guidelines.

Next, the path of least resistance is to check Enter an ISBN in the search function and it will bring up the correct textbook. Buy used. It’s much cheaper. As we’ve seen, even though new prices are less than you’ll pay in the bookstore, even at Amazon they’re out of reason.

If you don’t want to own these objects (and really: why should a freshman comp text collect dust on your bookshelf from now until you die?), google “textbook rental.” Thanks to our handy ISBN, we see that The Longman Writer can be borrowed for a semester from for $26.49, about what the book is actually worth.

Speaking of borrowing, check the campus library. Often faculty members put textbooks on reserve. Even though you can’t take it home, few textbook reading assignments require more than an hour or two.

And between you and me, at 10 cents a page for photocopying, you could xerox the entire Longman text for $68.20, considerably less than the bookstore wants for a new copy. Though I’m asking my students to read many chapters in this thing, I’m not testing them on the entire book. A smart student with an advance copy of the syllabus (generally available at the departmental office) could buy a copy from the bookstore, photocopy the relevant sections, and then return the thing before the deadline to receive a full refund.

Ethical? Legal? No. But when publishers and retailers are openly ripping off 19-year-olds, I wouldn’t feel too bad about a little larceny. You can always plead self-defense…

If you bought the book, resell it at the end of the semester. Check online for resale opportunities that will return more than the campus bookstore will pay you. Remember that you can resell the book on Amazon, possibly for more than you could get on-campus. Enter the ISBN, check the amounts people are getting, and compare with the figure the bookstore is offering. Don’t stop at Amazon; textbook renters often buy used books, as do other marketers—google “buy textbooks” to bring up a variety of sites. Sell to the highest bidder.

Oh, I’m getting all worked up over this. It makes me so angry! The textbook business, which ought to be an altruistic endeavor, has turned into industrial exploitation of a captive audience, made even more inexcusable by the buyers’ youth and financial naïveté.

If you’re a kid, don’t put up with it!

If you’re the parent of a new college student, teach your student where to find textbooks at reasonable prices, and help them to find ways get supplies from sellers that don’t steal from them.

14 thoughts on “Textbook Ripoffs: Why college leaves kids in debt”

  1. We also check, they list books from almost all the sites so it is easy to do a quick comparison on cost.

    Lately, my dd has been checking Often students will indicate whether or not a professor actually uses the book at all.If she has a choice she will pick the class section that may still require the book but won’t actually use it.

    A student can also ask if a previous edition is ok. Last year my dd had a class where it didn’t matter. The readings were the same and homework questions were assigned from a different handout.

    • @ Rebecca: The depressing question that arises from dd’s strategy is the one that recurs semester after semester in every class on every college and university campus: If you don’t intend to do the reading, why pay good money to go to college at all? Why take a section of a course where you KNOW the instructor is too lazy or too lache to keep the class’s standards up to the bare minimum required by the department? Doesn’t it concern dd that under those circumstances more money is wasted in tuition than one would “waste” on overpriced textbooks?

      My issue is not whether students do or don’t read the required texts–and often that is the student’s agenda: it’s less that they don’t want to pay for the books than that they don’t want to read the books. For me the issue is that textbooks are grossly overpriced, in much the same way that prescription drugs are grossly overpriced. In both instances, consumers are being gouged; in both instances, a vulnerable population of consumers are gouged.

      If it takes regulation to make that stop, then we need regulation. If there’s a way to manipulate market conditions–for example, by letting Americans buy prescriptions from Canadian and Mexican pharmacies and urging students to buy textbooks off the Internet–then by all means we should find a way to do that.

      @ Ellen: check out Rebecca D’s lead to! That sounds useful.

      @ Barb: try checking with the departments that house your various courses. At some schools the departments collect syllabi electronically before class begins & will forward them to students who ask.

  2. Our oldest two grandsons graduated from college this Spring (Thank goodness!) and we have two more to go. (Yes, we help.) Wish we had read this earlier, but it should help with the last two. I couldn’t believe the price of textbooks. One thing – in almost every case the text was new each year, so buying used was nigh impossible.

  3. Thanks for the tip about visiting the bookstore to collect the ISBNs; I hadn’t thought of that. We’re hoping for advance copies of the syllabuses at orientation. We’ve had great luck buying (and selling) on (part of e-Bay, but a separate URL). And this site “shops” all the other book sites for a specific ISBN, then links to the lowest prices:

  4. I have been able to find many of my textbooks through Ebay for $40 to $50. The catch is they are International Editions. I type the ISBN into the search engine then read the details to make sure it is the same edition. So far the only difference I’ve found between the two is the US edition is hardcover. The content, chapter questions, and image are identical! The International Edition usually has a sticker that says, “not for sale in the United States.” It seems like the textbook publishers are subsidizing their profits off of US students.

  5. My dd does do all of the readings she just doesn’t always purchase the most current texts. In the class I mentioned above, the professor pretty much regurgitated the text in lecture.

    She is an excellent student and tends to choose the professors others complain about-the teachers who expect the students to show up on time and have all their prep work done.

    I do agree that textbooks are grossly overpriced. We live in California and community colleges are relatively cheap here. So, cheap in fact, that dd always pays more for books for each class than the actual class cost! (We pay $26 a unit here)

    Also, this just passed.

    The easiest way to check the price of a text and then get the isbn # is to go online to the campus bookstore site. Almost every college has the course information online through the bookstore. There is usually drop down menu that will let you choose the course and section number and then show the books required with their isbn #’s listed.

    DD just registered for classes at two different community colleges this week and both college bookstore had this set up. We, of course, will purchase the books somewhere else.

  6. The dropped off my comment.

    “After some particularly effective lobbying—especially by U.S. PIRG, which organized a campaign for affordable textbooks—Congress has weighed in. As part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, effective July 1, colleges and universities, “to the maximum extent practicable,” must provide students with information about textbook requirements when they register for classes.”

  7. Thank-you so much for this article. As a parent of two college students, I am convinced that the process is designed to snag students who A) don’t know any better or B) don’t have parents that know any better.
    As an adult college student, I learned about the used book option and have used it for the last three years with my college kids. By purchasing the book used on Amazon and then re-selling it on Amazon, our textbook expense has been almost zero.

  8. A few other places to check for used books:

    Alibris dot com
    half dot com
    abebooks dot com
    powells dot com

    Alibris is particularly good. I got a book from there once for $1.99 plus about $2.00 shipping!

    Also, some books are selling pretty cheap as e-books.

  9. I just finished buying all my textbooks for this semester, and if I had bought the books at the university book store like my mom suggested (and all my profs/TAs say to do), I would have spent twice as much. It seems like my university’s policy is to advertise their own books even though they jack the price up so much. With the money I saved, I was able to buy the model kit and study guide/answer book that’s recommended for one of my courses.

    I think it’s horrible that books sell for so much because it’s hard enough to be in a university at all, much less afford everything they want you to shell out money for. If our universities put out reasonably priced books, I’d probably get them there rather than buy online.

  10. Sigh. I know that where I teach, I am able to select my textbooks and price is ALWAYS a factor in my selection. Not all faculty have this option, but if as an adjunct you are invited to participate in a textbook selection committee, do so. Many faculty are entirely unaware of the price of a textbook.

    Several years ago, I selected an American Literature textbook in part based on the inexpensive price–$40. When students showed up on the first day, they had paid $56. In some cases, the cost of the book reflects the quantity your school has purchased, plus a 10-20% mark up.

    One practice that drives up the cost of textbooks is sending complimentary copies to college professor all over the country. Every time I receive an unsolicited textbook–I think of the 3,000 other professors in the country that also received one “free” in the mail.

    Another factor that drives up cost would be the maintenance of all the “bells & whistles” that come with textbooks these days. Usually, there will be a companion web-site and all sort of supplementary texts. Banks of grammar exercises, pre-written tests, background research, a teaching manual, and various multi-media. These must be paid for somehow, even if an instructor doesn’t use them.

    This is a pet peeve of mine also. In a recent conversation with a used textbook re-saler, I wondered aloud about the future of textbooks. I can envision a day when textbooks may become e-texts. I’m not sure that most e-readers could handle the size of the page of many textbooks in the sciences, etc., but HE was enthusiastic about the possibilities of the iPad. I’ll no doubt be retired by then.

    On occasion, I have deliberately selected a trade book as the textbook for my courses in English composition, American Literature, and Creative Writing. In fact, I make my own textbook available for FREE to my students online.

  11. I always purchase as many of my textbooks as possible on Amazon or eBay. Some classes have started offering cheaper textbooks as digital version of the print book. You can read it online (or print off the relevant chapters at work).

    The University maintains an online site for every class, so some of my instructors will require a token book (usually the cheapest available that they can find) for a course, let students know not to buy the book, and post links or files on the class website containing all of the curriculum for the course.

    There are still many who assign four books and a video series, though. My Psychology professor last year assigned a $130 textbook, a supplemental $25 book, and a required video series that cost $45 to download or $60 to order the DVDs. Ridiculous.

  12. Humanities and Statistics Instructor – Southern California

    More and more, I’m getting a strong impression that students are prey to institutional gouging. From textbooks, to classes to loans.

    Required textbooks, costing double and triple what it would cost to purchase comparable books, bully students into purchasing from publishers who rarely offer anything new over existing cheaper books. Most of the “new” treatments of subjects have been simply re-hasing the same old stuff that’s been around for fifty years. Who benefits from this situation? Not the student!

    Many classes these days offer the lecture notes as part of the course. Then students go to the lecture to write down the notes again. Something is wrong with this picture. What amazes me is that many students like this system. I don’t get it, but who am I to spoil their fun. I have proposals to mitigate this “waste” of resources and will probably do more research before I start running my mouth any further.

    This article mentioned a $40K debt figure. For the school I teach (I recently quit acturally), the price is more like $100,000. I estimate that this same education would cost about $30K at a state college, or even community college for professions that do not require BS degrees. The sales and marketing as many colleges (private) are savvy and prey on the strong belief that education will solve all your problems. In fact, education can cause you a lot of problems if you get into a lot of debt.

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