Why are textbooks so expensive?

The United States is unarguably one of the most expensive countries for a college student in the world, with tuition rates for four-year colleges ranging anywhere from $5,000 to $40,000 a year. Community college in the U.S. is usually either an affordable shortcut to a four-year college or an affordable means to an associate degree or career training. It’s affordable because community college tuition today remains cheaper than at any four-year college. The question is, should affordability only be linked to tuition?

At Bellevue College, a full-time in-state student pays approximately $1,200 a quarter for tuition, along with additional technology fees, course fees, late registration fees, parking fees, and those other obscure fees called comprehensive fees and commute reduction fees. The number one expense for a student, however, is the price of the textbooks, an expense that can sometimes cost as much as tuition itself.

Most students are so used to the high textbook prices that they don’t even question them anymore. “The Spanish textbook cost me $180,” said Jason Hutchison, a student at BC. “That’s just what these things cost.”

“Some of our books that we have out there are running two and three hundred dollars,” said Kristen Connely, director of the BC bookstore.

At BC, one credit costs about $96. So, how is it that at community college, where the point is to make education more affordable to every student, some textbooks can cost as much as tuition for a three-credit course?

Ann Kenny, who works part-time at the BC bookstore, says the price is high for a reason. Publishers don’t print many copies of a textbook since the audience is only students in specific classes and not the general public. “It’s not like a Harry Potter novel,” she says, so publishers don’t print hundreds of thousands of copies. Plus, textbooks usually require colors and graphics and have laminated pages, so printing them is much more expensive than printing a basic black-on-white novel.

On the other hand, Anthony Blanchett, the supervisor of the BC bookstore, is a little more skeptical about the need for textbooks to cost so much to print. Back when he was in college in the 70s, the average textbook cost $10 to $20.

Back in 2005, at the request of Congress, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) researched why textbooks cost so much, and found that textbooks have been rising in cost at twice the rate of inflation for the past 20 years.

So where is all the money students pay for textbooks going? Basically, publishers don’t only pay to print the books. They also find the authors, pay them royalty fees, provide the copyrights, and pay their sales representatives who visit colleges to show the product. Then there’s the five to ten percent profit that BC makes off of the books that go to the self-supported bookstore. Finally, and most importantly, there’s the profit that publishing companies make, the percentage of which is safely locked away in a secret file somewhere.

One could argue that there’s no real difference between the publishers’ jobs today and their job 40 years ago. If anything, the cost of textbooks should be going down. There are more and more publishing companies each year, so there is more competition among them. Technology is developing faster than ever, so it couldn’t possibly cost more to laser-print a textbook.

So what on earth is the publishers’ excuse for prices being so high?

One trend that has been increasingly popular, much to the delight of the publishing companies, is all the electronic additions to the traditional textbook. Today there are CD-ROMs, homework websites and special software to support instruction. If a student wants to buy or rent a used book, and the professor requires online homework, buying ONLY a code would cost the student an extra $100 or so. The worst part is, the code has an expiration date, and so even if students and professors wanted to collaborate to pass the code on, it would stop working one year later.

So how come a code costs so much if the only extra charge is the salary of the web developer? According to Connely and to the GAO research, publishers are using the extra money for research that contributes to future developments in what they call “course material delivery.”

“I haven’t actually seen the end results,” said Connely, but the cost of this obscure research has been at the expense of the college student.

Are publishers truly using every means possible to ensure that every student pays these inflated prices for their products? That question is unlikely to be publicly addressed anytime soon. But, despite this inflation, people like Kristen Connely are seeking to find a way to make students pay less.

Six years ago, Connely started the first college textbook rental program in the state at the BC bookstore. “I felt that that was my obligation to my students” she said. Today, nine out of ten stores across the country are offering rentals. The program at BC is funded by two federal grants, and in the past year alone, Connely has saved the students of BC almost half a million dollars.

Despite these efforts however, Connely is still met with various obstacles. Sometimes professors decide to order new editions of books every year, so the older ones can’t be used anymore. Other times when a class is added or cancelled at the last minute, ordering new books takes time and causes long waiting lines at the beginning of a quarter, like what happened in January. The most significant obstacle though, is when a book order has to be returned to the publishers after a class has been cancelled. When that happens, the publishers will only refund ten percent of the book price, costing the college the other 90 percent.

Despite all attempts to the contrary, textbooks at BC continue to be quite expensive for the students. “These book prices are out of control!” said Rose Mansour, a student at BC. Publishing companies today are undermining the goal of community college. What’s the point of lowering tuition when textbooks can cost as much as a college course?