The cost of college tuition continues to soar and national student loan debt tops $1.5 trillion, but here’s a small consolation for degree-seekers: The cost of academic textbooks could start coming down, according to an article by professors Jenny Adams and Michael Ash for The Conversation.
The price of new textbooks has tripled since 1982, even though the cost of “recreational books” has fallen by nearly 40 percent in roughly the same time span (and yes, inflation was taken into account). So why are textbooks so expensive? As it turns out, technology has partly contributed to the problem. A small number of publishers monopolize the textbook industry, and new technological platforms have allowed them to release new editions more quickly and more frequently, rendering used editions obsolete. Newer electronic books also tend to come with doodads like access codes, which prohibit sharing.
Hope is on the horizon, though, because the textbook industry appears to be in a state of flux. For one, many students have discovered that they can find older versions of the textbooks they need in PDF format on websites like 4shared.com. And even though there are restrictions on sharing materials, many students do it anyway—and some professors have even started posting free content on course websites.
Other students have figured out that textbooks are priced differently in different global markets, and have hacked the system by ordering textbooks from locations where they’re sold at cheaper prices. As an example, The Conversation cites the textbook Economics by Paul Samuelson and William Nordhaus, which sells for about $206 on Amazon and roughly $6 in India.
This, of course, is not sustainable for the textbook industry—and at various points in history, schools have been forced to take action to provide their students free or affordable access to information. In medieval times, for example, some manuscripts were priced at six and a half pounds (between $10,000 and $100,000 in today's money), and were often used as collateral for loans. Universities eventually introduced the pecia system (after the Latin for "piece"), in which stationers kept copies of textbooks and scribes were hired out to copy only the selections students needed for classes. And in the 16th century, after the printing press had been introduced, book prices started to drop. Adams and Ash believe that history may repeat itself once again.
Nowadays, many universities are already using more open-source textbooks written by faculty, and some experts have proposed alternatives, like publicly funded textbooks that would be available to all, or using their massive buying power to hold down prices.
So while students may have to continue being resourceful for a little while longer, it's likely that future students “might enjoy more regulated and lower textbook prices than this current generation,” The Conversation argues.
[h/t The Conversation]