Rare Book Monthly
Articles - September - 2007 Issue
What is More Expensive than a Collectible Book? -- The Outrageous Cost of College Textbooks
By Michael Stillman
We received a press release from multi-site book searcher BookFinder.com that highlights one of the major cost issues with books these days. No, we are not talking about the high cost of antiquarian and other collectible books, luxuries rather than necessities for those who buy them. The issue is the outrageous cost of college textbooks students, often of limited means and already in hock up to their eyeballs, must pay for these course necessities. Necessity is not only the mother of invention, but the mother of price gouging. Price gouging is never pretty, be it at the gas pump or college bookstore, but is particularly ugly when targeted to items that are requirements for those who can ill afford them.
In the release, BookFinder's founder, Anirvan Chatterjee, is quoted as saying, "I can't believe how much students are having to pay this year." I can. I have two kids in college right now, and nothing surprises me. Textbooks typically cost a student in the area of $1,000 per year. And trust me, these will never be collectible works, appreciating in value. I still have some of my old expensive college textbooks, and though they, like I, have become antiquarian, you still can't give these things away.
Textbooks have been able to ride along on the coattails of the outrageous cost of a college education today. When colleges can charge upwards of $40,000 a year, and even state schools when all costs are factored in go well into five digits, textbooks can come across as an afterthought. It is like buying a refrigerator when you buy a new house. Having just spent a couple hundred grand for a home, the $1,000 for a new refrigerator seems almost irrelevant. Of course if you buy a refrigerator a few months later, you will pay close attention to the price, and carefully shop around for something less costly. However, if they can catch you at the moment you buy the house, the difference between the $300,000 house and the $301,000 house and refrigerator seems trivial. So it seems with the $40,000 education, or the $41,000 education with books. Who even notices the difference between being $100,000 or $104,000 in debt when you graduate? Either way it's hopeless.
However, just as something is going to have to give with college costs, so too will it have to give with textbooks. Education cannot be a privilege of the privileged, and we cannot go on saddling young people just starting their working lives with mountains of debt. We did not do this in the past; we certainly should not be doing it now when we have a wealthier nation. No animal in the animal kingdom expects its young to repay the previous generation for teaching it the skills it needs to survive, except for the human animal, American edition in particular. The young bird is not expected to return thousands of worms to the bird bank for being taught how to fly, yet humans persist in imposing this bird-brained idea on their young.