College is expensive, but should that mean dropping $300 on a textbook?
New semester renews old worries about textbook costs. With book prices reaching a new high every year, textbook prices have risen by 186% in the past eight years, according to the Advisory Committee for Student Financial Assistance. Students are faced with tough choices, and for some, the choice can be between buying groceries or getting the textbook.
The book often wins.
“It’s become a process of elimination because of how expensive textbooks have become,” Ananya Venkataraman, a freshman studying chemical engineering, said.
While students in arts and humanities majors can often get by without buying textbooks, they are frequently required for STEM majors, whose textbook prices range as high as $300 to $350 a book. Many have no choice but to rip open their wallets.
“I personally have to work at least nine hours on top of what I already do to be able to afford all my books,” Joseph Pizzoferato, a biomedical engineering major, said.
For students at the university, Barnes and Noble (B&N) and Amazon are their primary sources, the latter having grown in popularity in recent years. B&N provides books at the ready but often at a higher price. Despite the bookstore being expensive, students frequently have to turn to it for certain specific course packets that are unavailable online or textbooks with an access code that they can only get from the store. Some students also receive scholarships that they can apply to their bookstore purchases right away, something they cannot do on Amazon.
“The store provides rental books at a lower price but they are still well above the margin and few in number,” Samra Arshad, a sophomore medical laboratory sciences major, said. “Only a handful of students can get to them before they are sold out.”
In order to save money students look for different ways to access the books online. Availability, speedy delivery and lower prices (for rentals and sometimes new purchase) have made Amazon the hot favorite. Despite all these benefits, the e-commerce titan is still no solution as only a few books are available at a price that would make for a significant savings.
Some students also purchase online PDF versions of the text which is sometimes cheaper than both Amazon and B&N. However, if students are using an e-book they cannot resell it to recoup some of the money they spent and in most cases the access expires as soon as the semester ends.
While these two giants battle in the field of academia, it is the students who have the most to lose, with little option to look elsewhere. They end up buying only a few of the required books and even go to the lengths of not buying a book at all because ‘It’s not worth their money’.
Inflation in online and retail bookselling has become a major issue over the years, one that affects the quality of the education system. The questions mount: Is it the university’s responsibility to provide students with easy and cheap access to books? Can the faculty do anything to help?
“As a professor, I always try to find affordable options for my students, because I know they are taking more classes than just mine,” Lindsay Hoffman, a professor in the communication department, said. “I often opt for popular-press books, which are far less expensive than traditional textbooks.”
This issue brings to light a much deeper problem. A few publication houses control the majority of the publishing market, granting them the power to exploit students. According to the Washington Post, “The textbook market for required undergraduate courses bear a marked resemblance to monopoly.”
“The choice between a campus bookstore and Amazon is a false one,” Charlotte Shreve, an English Language Institute faculty member and former university student, said. “Everyone in academia should be pushing harder for open-access textbooks.”