By Daniel Strawhun, Opinions Editor
With the end of the fall semester approaching, students of the University of Missouri–St. Louis will once again find themselves standing at the counter of the exceptionally well-lit and poorly stocked Triton Store, paying entirely too much for textbooks. It is no secret: college textbooks are exorbitantly priced.
While nearly everything is more expensive today than it once was, the average price of a textbook has risen exponentially, far outpacing the relative price inflation of other goods and services. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the cost of educational books (i.e., college textbooks) has increased 812 percent since 1978. For comparison, the BLS reports that medical services, another subset of the economy whose extortionate price increases have been publicly decried, have risen only (only!) 575 percent since 1978. Obviously, there is a problem.
What is perhaps most upsetting about textbook price-gouging is that the increase in price in no way reflects a proportionate increase in quality. Take, for example, “Texts and Contexts” by Steven Lynn, an introduction to critical theory of literature. The book is a standard 8.5” x 5.5” black-and-white paperback. The latest (seventh) edition has on its cover a graphic of a partially solved puzzle depicting a tree growing out of the middle of an open book. An ethereal light conveniently radiates from, and hence obscures, the point at which the tree meets the binding. The cover design basically screams 90s kitsch, and not in a knowingly ironic way. Furthermore, the actual content itself is facile, reductive and cursory. The writing is simplistic, and not in a good way: the book has a self-published, this-was-written-by-someone-you-know feel to it.
However, the book was in fact published by Pearson, the largest educational publisher in the world according to a 2015 article by Publishers Weekly. According to the article, Pearson earned over $7 billion in 2014. For Steven Lynn’s middling survey of modern lit. crit., Pearson’s suggested retail price is $90.40. $90.40 for 270 pages of paperback pablum—“Texts and Contexts” is hideously overpriced indeed.
The root of the problem has to do with a lack of competition, as one might expect. The educational publishing industry is dominated by only five companies: Pearson, Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Scholastic, and McGraw-Hill. These five entities control the entire industry, having more than enough capital to buy out any smaller company that might try to undercut their sales.
However, there is reason to believe that this oligopoly might one day soon be dismantled. H.R. Bill 3721, commonly called the Affordable College Textbook Act, is a bill that seeks to “achieve the highest level of savings for students; expand the use of open textbooks at other IHEs; and produce open textbooks that are of the highest quality, that can be most easily utilized and adapted by faculty members, that correspond to the highest enrollment courses, and that are created or adopted in partnership with entities that will assist in their marketing and distribution.”
Of course, such a bill will not be perfect, nor is it likely to be passed with any sense of urgency. In the meantime, we highly encourage college students at UMSL and elsewhere to make use of websites like chegg.com, campusbooks.com, and amazon.com to buy and sell their used textbooks. We hope that students will choose not to buy new textbooks if at all possible, only used. In doing so, they will be choosing not to support an industry that only seeks to exploit them.