Jordan Weissmann over at the Atlantic writes that college textbooks have increased 812 percent since 1978.

Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute produced this graph to show how college textbook costs compare to the price of other things:

Why? Well it’s a little difficult to pinpoint any one factor to explain the whole problem. One major explanation for the reason is that, like with healthcare, the people in charge of determining what consumers have to buy (here professors) don’t have any control over the cost.

A chemistry professor might determine that everyone taking his course must buy McGraw-Hill Higher Education’s Introduction of Organic Chemistry. The publisher will then offer the book, complete with interactive computer materials no one uses, for $250. The bookstore won’t offer very many used copies of the book, so most students have to pay that $250. There’s also no real competition. While it’s true that some other Intro to Organic Chemistry book might contain virtually the same information, the student has to use the book assigned in order to complete the class assignments.

I’ve written before before about the textbook issue and I’m often skeptical about book prices as a matter for real concern. Since 1978, after all, college tuition has increased 1,120 percent.

But as Weissmann explains, college textbooks really are important to determining the total expense of college. After financial aid, the average student attending a public institution pays only about $2,900 in tuition and fees. Textbooks now set the average student back $655 a year. That’s almost 20 percent of the total education budget. And unlike with tuition, however, there are no special rates available to those with lower incomes.

College tuition increased so much largely because of declining state support for higher education. Textbook costs were never state subsidized, however. Did the books just get 812 percent better?

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