The Magical Textbook Solution

There’s a trend now among higher education reformers to focus on reducing the cost of textbooks, which are supposedly deeply burdensome to students.

The average student now spends slightly under $600 buying textbooks in an academic year. According to Mary Beth Marklein at USA Today, “groups target textbook prices to rein in college costs.” This might be misguided, however.

As Marklein writes:

A push to create free or inexpensive textbooks is gaining momentum as educators, philanthropists and policymakers nationwide search for new ways to rein in college costs.

It’s all aimed at providing cheaper alternatives to traditional textbooks, which can cost more than $150 apiece. “Everyone is trying to figure out how to keep higher education affordable, and doing it in a way that does not impact income to the university,” says David Ernst, who is spearheading a University of Minnesota project that encourages faculty to adopt cheaper books.

I’ve discussed textbook pricing and the various attempts to force cost down before. A lot of this seems questionable to me, especially the part about compelling people to buy expensive electronic devices on which to view the material, but fine, good luck.

The bigger problem with this, however, is that it doesn’t matter. Textbook pricing is such a tiny, irrelevant part of the cost of college.

The average price of in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities is now $8,244 a year. Textbooks are less than eight percent of that total. Tuition and fees at private four-year colleges is now $28,500 a year.

What’s more, textbook prices were rising, but at a far less serious rate than anything else in higher education. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office indicated that the price of college textbooks “nearly tripled from December 1986 to December 2004… while tuition and fees increased by 240 percent and overall inflation was 72 percent.

Furthermore, the Marklein article indicated that students are actually paying less money for books now than in past years. “Those attending four-year colleges spent on average $598 in 2010-11, down from $677 in 2008-09,” Marklein explains.

But even if reformers, or more likely technology entrepreneurs, could bring the cost of books down to like $20 a year, there would be no meaningful reduction in the real cost of college, which would continue to skyrocket at more than double the rate of inflation.

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