Why Textbooks Cost So Much

With college costs rising, a few reformers are working to try reduce the price of education by focusing on textbooks. The California state senate president, Darrell Steinberg, recently introduced a plan to move the university system over to electronic textbooks. Some universities push textbook rentals.

Considering that the average student spends slightly under $900 buying textbooks in a year, reducing the cost of such things seems like a worthy endeavor, but how much of the textbook market can change? How much of this is worth fixing, really?

According to this piece at Mental Floss, there’s not really much we can do. As Ethan Trex wrote back in September:

In the simplest economic terms, the high price of textbooks is symptomatic of misaligned incentives, not exorbitant production costs. Students hold the reasonable stance that they’d like to spend as little money as possible on their books. Students don’t really have the latitude to pick which texts they need, though.

Professors pick the course materials, and faculty members don’t have any strong incentive to be price sensitive when it comes to selecting textbooks. Their out-of-pocket expense is zero whether the required texts cost $100 or $300, so there’s no real barrier to heaping on more reading material. If a student needs Class X to graduate, they’ll likely need to procure the required texts. This lack of cost-control incentives for professors is a major reason that at some point in college, everyone meets the expensive textbook’s even more maddening cousin, the Expensive Textbook You Never Even Use.

Moreover, however, while students might complain about the price of textbooks, they don’t exert enough influence over the process to bring the costs down.

Trex: “While the broke college kid is a beloved caricature, many students’ parents may still be footing the bill for school materials like books. None of the players actually have any strong incentive to be sensitive to prices.”

Trex points out that the cost of textbooks might eventually go down, but that would only come as a result of larger and more fundamental changes to the publishing industry.

For today’s students, and any students in the near future, textbook prices are going to remain high, and perhaps even increase as publishers look to recoup losses due to technological innovation they’re sustaining in other publishing ventures.

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