Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?

As Drop/Add week comes to an end, students are finishing up one of the most dreaded activities of the semester: Acquiring textbooks. Whether you have already purchased all your textbooks or are heading to Broad Street to pick up the final ones, you will all end the week having dealt with one of the worst cases of sticker shock possible. Because while the mile-long line is annoying, nothing is more horrifying than seeing your purchase total turn to a three-digit number for the nine textbooks your English class requires. Of course, there are cheaper options: you can buy used or rent new/used copies, borrow, lend, sellback after buying, have parents pay, pay part, pay full. But sellback can be difficult and asking parents difficult to navigate, especially if the money situation is tight. And with the prices sitting at a cringe-worthy level no matter what, paying for textbooks has become a serious concern for most college students.

Have you ever wondered why you’re textbooks are so expensive? Even normal books aren’t always cheap, but textbook prices have soared far above that level. There is some disparity in data, but on average it is reported that textbook prices have risen 800% in the last 30 years.  And with choosing to not buy a textbook possibly hurting your grade, it poses questions about a rigged college system that favors those with money, even after you get past the golden gates. So what’s causing prices to be so high?

To start, the textbook market isn’t a free market. It’s been monopolized, as only five publishers publish 80% of what’s out there. In economic terms, the industry mirrors a model for monopolistic competition, with fixed costs and low competition that allows publishers to “drive up prices without fear of market competitors,” (Attn). Since these publishers run the game, they can do pretty much whatever they want. For example, instead of releasing new textbooks, the same books are repackaged as new additions that often contain study guides/CDs to ramp up the price. And since teachers are forced to choose from this small number, and students are forced to buy what they are assigned, this leaves us at the mercy of the publisher’s whims.

Textbooks aren’t the only victim of this monopolistic industry. Recent years have brought on a number of disturbing price hikes, notably in prescription medicine. Last year, the price of a life-saving drug called Daraprim rose from $13.50 to $750. Recently, the price of the epi-pen has been inflated immensely, with a two-pack now costing $600. These changes are devastating to families who have to pay for these drugs, and it’s all because of the lack of competition for the few pharmaceutical companies in circulation. Contrastingly, the music industry has not had any similar sort of hike due to fact that pirating keeps music companies in check. And while downloading PDFs of textbooks for free exists, it’s certainly not as easy as downloading music and movies for free. (Not that we’re advocating that – While that might fix the high price issue, the music industry is troubled by pirating in a whole other way that involves lack of income for musicians and creators).

Some say the market for textbooks is undergoing huge changes; as a student I can’t say I see those changes in the horizon. I’m still spending lots of money on books and seeing some of my friends spend even more. With big companies battling it out for profit on a scale much larger than a college student’s budget, we’re left to hope that teachers are lenient or that our bookstores provide good deals on renting used copies. The least we can do is understand why this is happening, and make the connection from high prices to the monopolistic industries that are responsible.


Works Cited/Bibliography

Attn Staff. “Here’s Exactly Why College Textbooks Are So Expensive.” ATTN:. N.p., 12 Mar. 2015. Web. <http://www.attn.com/stories/1164/heres-exactly-why-college-textbooks-are-so-expensive>.

Campbell, Todd. “Why Mylan’s EpiPen Is Sparking “Epi-Rage”” The Motley Fool. N.p., 25 Aug. 2016. Web. <http://www.fool.com/investing/2016/08/25/why-mylans-epipen-is-sparking-epi-rage.aspx>.

The Editorial Board. “Textbooks Are Still Too Expensive, and the Data Doesn’t Look Promising.” The Daily Campus. N.p., 15 Feb. 2016. Web. <http://dailycampus.com/stories/2016/2/15/textbooks-are-still-too-expensive-and-the-data-doesnt-look-promising>.

Nicholls, Natsuko H., comp. Demographic Data on Textbooks and Usage Statistics: Implications for Textbook Cost-Saving Analysis. University of Michigan. N.p., June 2012. Web. <http://www.lib.umich.edu/files/Cost-Analysis-Student-Survey.pdf>.

Why College Textbooks Cost so Much. Indiana State University. N.p., n.d. Web. <http://isu.indstate.edu/guell/ecn100_004/Textbooks.pdf>.