Monday, October 25, 2010

The End of the College Textbook as We Know It?

The unsustainable "higher education bubble" has received some well-deserved attention lately - watch Glenn Reynolds talk about it in detail here. A direct partner in the "higher education bubble" is the unsustainable "college textbook bubble," captured graphically in the chart above - notice how it totally dwarfs the "real estate bubble." Since 1980, educational books have risen annually at more than twice the rate of overall inflation, 6.7% vs. 3.3% respectively. "When students pay more for new textbooks than tuition in a year, then something's wrong," says Rand S. Spiwak, executive vice president at Daytona State in the article below. 

From today's Chronicle of Higher Education, a possible solution? 

"Here's the new plan: Colleges require students to pay a course-materials fee, which would be used to buy e-books for all of them (whatever text the professor recommends, just as in the old model).

Why electronic copies? Well, they're far cheaper to produce than printed texts (MP: $25-30 vs. $150-300), making a bulk purchase more feasible. By ordering books by the hundreds or thousands, colleges can negotiate a much better rate than students were able to get on their own, even for used books. And publishers could eliminate the used-book market and reduce incentives for students to illegally download copies as well.

Of course those who wanted to read the textbook on paper could print out the electronic version or pay an additional fee to buy an old-fashioned copy—a book."

MP: As Glenn Reynolds reminds us, "a process that cannot go on forever, won't."  When some students are spending more on textbooks than tuition, that certainly seems to qualify as a situation that cannot go on forever.  For the unsustainable "textbook bubble," e-books seem to offer one possible solution.   


At 10/25/2010 9:58 AM, Blogger Buddy R Pacifico said...

What if you are taking a basic Econ course? It is very likely your textbook will be Greg Manikiw's Principles of Economics. The e-book(Kindle) version on Amazon is $105.56 but a used text starts at $50.00.

The e-book revolution is roaring ahead with reader software and hardware. The paradigm has changed but demand for Mankiw's text has kept the price steep for even the electronic version. Will college and universities demand that econ instructors require a "lesser" text to lessen demand and drive down price?

At 10/25/2010 11:24 AM, Blogger wintercow20 said...

I teach an intro economics course and have no required readings. Even if a used text is $50, I have 300 students in that class, so we are "saving" $6,000 on it, and we end up reading primary sources and a wonderful variety of "free" materials, including my own notes which in an old day would have been the bones of my own textbook.

At 10/25/2010 1:51 PM, Blogger Bruce Hall said...

It's the "new edition" impact. Each year a "new edition" with the same content slightly rearranged and supported by the same references comes out. This forces students to buy the "new edition" at inflated prices rather than buying a used book at reasonable prices.

The biggest, longest-enduring educational scam ever.

At 10/26/2010 9:25 AM, Blogger juandos said...

Hey Buddy do you know why a keynesian like Mankiw is being used instead of someone like Thomas Sowell?

At 10/28/2010 10:26 AM, Blogger Evil Red Scandi said...

Bruce partially nails it - it's New Edition impact.

But the reason for New Edition impact is that the academics that write these textbooks have market monopolies created by the teachers that assign them - and they have resisted all forms efficiencies in the quest to squeeze a few extra dollars out of their captive market.

It's one of many bubbles in higher education that needs to be popped.

At 10/28/2010 10:28 AM, Blogger Evil Red Scandi said...

E-textbooks may substantially reduce publishing costs (you still have layout / typesetting, editing, etc), but they will eliminate the resale market and all incentive for academics to stop putting out new editions every year. Why not every semester?

I could see this actually driving prices up.


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