The price of learning from expensive books: The cost of educational books has soared by 150 percent since 2000 while the cost of recreational books has fallen.

There are many reasons why college costs are soaring even well beyond the regular rate of inflation.  Schools are adding immense amenities to attract students.  Student debt backed by the government allows schools to push prices higher since students simply go into deeper debt with little analysis on ability to pay at a later date.  Similar to hospital charging outrageous prices for a standard Aspirin, book publishers realize that they can get away with charging more for textbooks as well.  Any college student can tell you that the cost of a college text can eat deep into your budget.  Many science books cost hundreds of dollars.  Publishers quickly realized years ago that savvy students could photocopy and pass books around.  The way around this?  Requiring students to purchase access codes in conjunction with the book virtually forced students to always pay market prices for access to course content.  So it should come as no surprise to you that since 2000, the cost of educational books has soared while the cost of recreational books has actually fallen.

Reading inflation

College books are expensive.  Yet the cost of going to college has absolutely soared since 2000.  In line with the rising cost of higher education students have gone deeper and deeper into debt.  Financial aid will first pay off tuition, fees, and other mandatory charges but many students will take a small or large amount more to cover living expenses including books and other materials.  Since the debt is there, it is not surprising that publishers have taken advantage of this easy debt machinery.

Many college students are living on Ramen and water yet somehow, are able to drop hundreds of dollars on course books.  I would venture to say that a piece of that student debt pie is allocated to purchase books each semester.  If you think prices have not gone up for educational books take a look at this:

college books

Educational books, those largely used for college have gone up by 150+ percent since 2000.  Keep in mind that over this period wages have gone stagnant.  So maybe the cost of all books has soared.  Not true.  The cost of recreational books has fallen.  After all, digital publishing should be driving the cost lower along with lower barriers of entry for aspiring writers.

But with course content, many instructors will use publisher materials as part of their course thus forcing students to purchase access codes to complete required assignments.  The book then becomes a secondary focus for many students.

There is no question that many college texts are excellent and provide great material.  Yet it is interesting that the cost of educational books has moved up in tandem with the cost of higher education.  I attribute this to the massive amounts of student debt financing flowing into the system.  The US has a massive college system and with $1.2 trillion in student debt outstanding, money has been flowing into a large portion of our economy.  Publishers have been one of the main winners here.

If a course is taught with publisher material requiring a code, there is a near monopoly for that publisher.  Take for example a college level calculus course.  Not much has changed in entry level college calculus.  Yet publishers come out with new editions every year.  Why?  Like any business, you have to figure out ways to keep income streaming in.

It is fascinating that the inflation in higher education is permeating into ancillary items including college books.  Some things never change and college books seem to be a very expensive component of the college education experience.  Since many have little to no money, they simply go into deep debt to finance this purchase.

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3 Comments on this post


  1. jhpace1 said:

    The professors are as complicit in the gouging of their students as doctors and physicians who prescribe medications that they have not only majority stock in, but receive non-public benefits from. Even when I graduated from an university (18 years ago), I saw the books change from publishers to professor-published, removing the middleman and generating a new income stream for the professors and the university. Self-interest? Conflict of interest!

    Adding insult to injury, none of these textbooks or pamphlets are valid after the semester ends – becoming worthless in the secondary market. Using calculus as an example from above, that’s ridiculous. Calculus was discovered in the early 1700s. Compare a tome from that era to today’s textbooks and tell me the difference. No, with today’s books, the professor can require the students to use the university’s computer system to solve the problems and send the homework results to them via proprietary e-mail accounts. Nothing but a (gold? or lead?) shackle for students to pay for.

    The only way to opt-out of such a parasitical system is online courses or a community college for the first two years of higher education. The beast in those cases is just a little smaller than land-grant universities. You’re still going to pay – just not as much. You can also boycott the university’s collegiate sport programs and special events – their real moneymakers.

    September 9th, 2014 at 6:56 am
  2. Ame said:

    When I attended college in the late 80’s, we were told to purchase new textbooks each year and if we were caught with a previous year book, we would be expelled. This was before those dandy little access codes, of course. Like you said, not much if anything had changed to justify a new book.

    September 9th, 2014 at 9:49 am
  3. wkevinw said:

    As a grad student at University of California, a prof gleefully bragged that his textbook sales had financed his kids’ education. It’s been no secret for decades.

    September 11th, 2014 at 6:45 am


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