Technology, Foe of Thrift

A long-running component of the college costs discussion has to do with the price of textbooks. Books, which now cost some college students almost $900 a year, are particularly troublesome for students. Unlike the cost of, say, tuition students have to buy books right there, in the bookstore. Well there goes rent.

Some critics of textbook pricing have proposed solutions, of a sort. There’s textbook rental, but the big silver bullet solution getting so many people excited is the electronic textbook, which combines the promise of savings with the allure of new gadgets. As Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U (though herself a graduate of Yale U), writes in the New York Times’s Room for Debate:

Luckily, there is a great transitional model: [one company] commissions expert authors to produce textbooks that are free to read online and available in a variety of formats for costs that average just $18 per student per semester, 82 percent cheaper than traditional textbooks.

In fact the promise of electronic textbooks to make information cheaply available to everyone is greatly exaggerated, according to economist Byron Brown of Michigan State University. As he writes, the true advantage of the electronic textbook is not to students (who can generally buy used textbooks much cheaper), but to publishers:

Because an e-text has no resale value, it is a near perfect solution to the publishers’ marketing problem. And their pricing of the e-text, at $79.49 [in a case in which the new physical book costs $164.35], approximately twice the students’ net price in the used market, assures that the money pipeline will continue to flow.

Yet the e-text, by my students’ reckoning, provides even less convenience and less learning value than a used paper copy. E-texts don’t make textbooks cheaper, as the
publishers contend, but accomplish exactly the opposite.

If an item is tremendously marked up, merely marking it up for slightly less doesn’t actually offer a solution to the problem. The books are still dramatically overpriced, whether they’re real books or electronic ones.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer