Give up on Textbooks

For me the beginning of every semester in college went the same way. I would get a list of textbooks from my syllabi. I’d spend hundreds of dollars chasing after used versions of the books, and then, for the most part, I’d barely use the books. Sometimes that was just due to my laziness, but oftentimes the professor would just end up not using it, choosing to instead focus course content on their slideshows despite the fact that they “required” the textbook.

https://www.mercatus.org/system/files/helland-tabarrok_why-are-the-prices-so-damn-high_v2.pdf

Now I won’t pretend like that is representative of every college student, but I suspect that sort of waste is pretty common and very preventable. The bigger and more confusing problem is shown by the graph to the left…despite the accessibility of online education resources along with the rising costs of college tuition, textbook prices have increased ~200% over the last 20 years. Debt-ridden students are being saddled with more preventable costs from the textbooks they are supposedly required to buy.

I don’t want this to sound conspiratorial. The publishing industry is massive and complicated. Sales have been declining and the markets have changed considerably due to used book websites and ebook sales. With the exception of Scholastic, most of the major publicly-traded publishers have had poor stock performances in the last decade. On top of that, the increases in college tuition are hard to pin down. In some ways you can’t blame publishing companies for rising prices and you can’t quite blame colleges for not being more responsive to building cheaper alternatives to requiring increasingly costly textbooks.But, when we already have so much free, high-quality educational content online, it is up to us as consumers to opt out when we can and demand better from our institutions of higher learning.

So although I can’t give an exact explanation for why college textbook costs have increased so much — suspect it’s some mix of falling profits from ebooks and used books along with a bit of market monopolization from 5 under-performing publishers — I’d like to primarily focus on how we can move forward.

Moving Forward

It’s imperative that we figure out ways to decrease the cost of college since tuition continues to rise and college’s value as an investment continues to declineAlthough textbooks only account for about 10% of education costs, it’s unusually high price increases paired with its possible susceptibility to replacement makes it a useful beginning target for decreasing total college cost.

Push for Open source

I know that this is taboo especially coming from a teacher, but I trust Wikipedia as a mostly high-quality source. I think there is a lot of ridiculous double-speak about Wikipedia. Despite the fact that the entire world uses it as a high-quality first resource to learn about most topics, we pretend like it’s untrustworthy and not appropriate within formal education. That has some truth to it. Of course there can be ways in which people can manipulate Wikipedia to display straightforwardly incorrect and at-times problematic information. The beautiful thing about Wikipedia is that it is an entire political structure of people fighting over the correct version of events. As danah boyd discusses in her excellent book It’s Complicated, Wikipedia can arguably be a credible “site for knowledge production” that may even be more accurate than traditional sources.

The first time you hear this I know it can kinda sound hard to believe, and, truth be told I kinda like the argument partly because it is so punk: random uncredentialed people on the internet could be part of a social network that is more credible than the formal educational institutions we built as arbiters of truth? However this is isn’t so ridiculous when you consider the market dynamics that publishers are under. In a lot of cases publishers are hired to write the textbooks that states want. They are paid to write whatever truth the money tells them to.

Take the case of Texas’s history and science textbooks. The Texas Board of Education set the standards and narratives that they wanted in their state’s textbooks. Even though many of these narratives contained problematic and arguably untrue revisions of American history that included the whitewashing of slavery, the publishers still complied. They wrote what amounted to lies.

When push comes to shove, publishers will comply with peddling whatever the government says is the truth. This deference to the buyer does not sound like the institutional credibility we have been sold.

In contrast, changes on Wikipedia are fought over dramatically and democratically through a complicated reputation system built on the expertise and track record of individual users. It is not fool-proof but it is still worth considering the possibility that this system is less error prone than our more formal alternatives. We should not just bite on the usually unsupported argument that “of course it can’t be trusted!!”

Now I’m not necessarily saying that colleges should give up on their textbooks in favor of Wikipedia. That is a ludicrous non-starter. There will be many areas where that would be unhelpful and many areas where Wikipedia could credibly stand-in for otherwise costly textbooks. After all, how many of you have consulted Wikipedia and gotten good content after getting frustrated with the textbook? I personally did that throughout many of my hardest classes. What I’m really saying, though, is that the Wikipedia open source model could be adapted to meet the needs of many different disciplines.

Take the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. It’s an open source and extremely well respected resource for Philosophy content that shares many features with Wikipedia. The innovation over Wikipedia is that it enlists professional philosophers to write the entries which can then be edited by other philosophers through the website. Publishing an entry also has real worth in the field. I’ve seen it listed along with more typical journal submissions on many CVs. I was frequently assigned SEP entries as readings in many of my philosophy classes.

This provides a viable example of a usable open source model that could be used across many disciplines to chip away at textbook use in the class. It sustains itself by making entries count as a serious academic contribution to the field. Because of that, it could plausibly sustain itself in many fields by attracting qualified writers whose content is iteratively improved by a community of other professors on the platform.

Private and Government Prizes for Textbooks

This idea goes along with the thinking about providing government prizes for medical innovations. Basically, since R&D for a drug is so high, drug companies have to use intellectual property to make back the money they lost in the drug’s development. If the government instead fronted money to companies for development and then paid the best group for their drug, the government can own the IP and subsequently sell the drug at cost rather than try to get money back.

You can think of the same thing in terms of textbooks. If the federal accreditation agencies require that schools teach certain things for certain courses, then agencies could make open prizes for course textbooks. The difference between this method and the contract system that we now have is that the government would own the copyright for the books and could distribute them online at a significantly lower cost than a publisher otherwise could. This would require more transition to paper free textbooks, but it could also create a major market for small publishers and writers to vie for the prizes. For instance, if we wanted a new intro to economics textbook for gen ed courses, individual economists could compete with publishers to get the prize.

A textbook prize system also handles a lot of the costs that go into distribution and sales. A massive chunk of publishing costs comes from sales and distribution. If the government provided the textbook for the courses that it already regulates through the accreditation process, then it could essentially handle all of the distribution costs.

This is already used in some forms. My alma mater, Ohio State, used a government grant to fund the creation of their Calculus 1–3 curricula. The grant was partly for the software used to build the curriculum, but it all essentially amounted to the government funding an otherwise free student textbook in a very common gen ed course.

Local Curriculum Adjustment by Professors (Teach out of the textbook, don’t request students to buy textbooks that won’t be used, accept older versions of the textbook)

The largest driver for any change in textbook-use comes from the educators themselves. In general, professors just need to be more responsive to factors that affect student cost. Part of that is really just about a general empathy toward student financial concerns. This is surprisingly less common than most would think.

For example, I took a Psychology class that required a textbook that cost around $65 used. The TAs pushed us to buy it and we weren’t told by the professor until 3 weeks in that “it wasn’t really required but it’s just nice to have.” It was a 150 person class. The professor’s thoughtlessness cost the class a collective $10,000. That sort of decision borders on negligence especially when so many students are dealing with debt, food insecurity, and borderline poverty.

So aside from just general empathy and common sense, here are some other possible factors within the professors control:

  1. Accept used books, if a new and expensive version includes new questions or content, supply that through photocopy or forego it.
  2. Don’t over-recommend books. If there is a chance it doesn’t get covered, don’t require it. If you only use a passage from it, then photocopy the passage. If tests and lecture materials are contained in the slide shows alone, then don’t require the book. I looked through my library today and found 17 books with an initial cost of about $500 that I was required to buy in college but never ended up using. That’s not uncommon and the resale of these books is not easy.
  3. When possible use free content.
  4. Experiment with the serious use of open source resources like Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
  5. Prefer the cheaper versions of large course textbooks
  6. Omit assignments that require a hardcopy of the book. Ebooks are obviously a way to lighten the load of textbook cost, but it’s up to students to choose to use them. In order to make that possible, Professors need to consider omitting assignments that require a hardcopy of the book. For instance, I had classes in college where I had to submit annotations of a book. The professor was picky about using a hardcopy which forced me to pay for the book rather than using a free pdf version.

Push for and buy from smaller publishing houses

In general I’m wary of any grand conspiracies about companies. It’s very easy to spin convincing ideological narratives without any facts at all and much of the time they are not true. However, I do have some personal experience in some shady business practices used in educational publishing. My mentor at an internship previously worked as salesman for a major publishing company after being a teacher. She frequently talked about how she was pushed to sell new textbooks to cash-strapped school districts without allowing them to buy from literal warehouses of used textbooks that were half the price, in good condition, and still up to date with state standards. Despite needs to save money in these districts, the district’s public inelasticity to price meant that they were able to be exploited continually by greedy business practices from major publishing companies who are sensitive primarily to their publicly traded stock.

I’m concerned that large publicly traded publishing companies will be so bent on growth that they will be more likely than smaller private publishers to use questionable business practices that are bad for users. I don’t have actual evidence of that so I will leave it here just as a hypothesis worth considering. But even if we can’t prove that publicly traded companies are more nefarious than smaller, private publishers, there are justifiable concerns about the power and business practices of the big 5 publishers. I’m not prepared to argue that they are monopolies, but that doesn’t matter. Bad business is bad business and opting out of major publishers as often as possible is worth attempting.

Schools and School Systems can develop curricula without textbooks

The charter network I work at creates their own curriculum for all of their classes. We don’t use textbooks. We build all our own materials and then refine and standardize them across the system. That is pretty common. Certain networks like Achievement First lead the charge and many of these lesson plans are publicly available.

As teachers I think we should be held accountable to having the content expertise required to write curricula about the areas we teach in without the use of textbooks. This is especially easy now for most disciplines since such an amazing amount of educational content is available online. On a good day, I can develop a homework, worksheets, and lesson for my students in 20 minutes. I’m not a great teacher. It’s just easy because of the internet. This expectation can be re-normed across education. Although it will lead to more hours put in by teachers, it’d lead to a significant decrease in the billions currently being spent on K12 and College textbooks.


I won’t pretend like this is a conclusive analysis of the situation. I just think it is important to get people more aware of the ridiculousness of textbook pricing. Because it is such a large and complicated market, these problems won’t necessarily be fixed by large state reforms. A lot of this is up to local changes from consumers and educators to be more aware and responsive to the pricing and possible exploitation in these markets.

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