College Guide


January 04, 2013 1:13 PM Yes, Textbooks Are Too Expensive

By Daniel Luzer

Jordan Weissmann over at the Atlantic writes that college textbooks have increased 812 percent since 1978.

Mark Perry at the American Enterprise Institute produced this graph to show how college textbook costs compare to the price of other things:


Why? Well it’s a little difficult to pinpoint any one factor to explain the whole problem. One major explanation for the reason is that, like with healthcare, the people in charge of determining what consumers have to buy (here professors) don’t have any control over the cost.

A chemistry professor might determine that everyone taking his course must buy McGraw-Hill Higher Education’s Introduction of Organic Chemistry. The publisher will then offer the book, complete with interactive computer materials no one uses, for $250. The bookstore won’t offer very many used copies of the book, so most students have to pay that $250. There’s also no real competition. While it’s true that some other Intro to Organic Chemistry book might contain virtually the same information, the student has to use the book assigned in order to complete the class assignments.

I’ve written before before about the textbook issue and I’m often skeptical about book prices as a matter for real concern. Since 1978, after all, college tuition has increased 1,120 percent.

But as Weissmann explains, college textbooks really are important to determining the total expense of college. After financial aid, the average student attending a public institution pays only about $2,900 in tuition and fees. Textbooks now set the average student back $655 a year. That’s almost 20 percent of the total education budget. And unlike with tuition, however, there are no special rates available to those with lower incomes.

College tuition increased so much largely because of declining state support for higher education. Textbook costs were never state subsidized, however. Did the books just get 812 percent better?

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer


  • Gabe on January 06, 2013 9:21 PM:

    The books definitely did not get 812% better. Math textbooks might be some of the worst offenders:

    -while scientific knowledge evolves, the stuff in introductory single variable calculus hasn't changed for a long time. I asked my dad what he learned in introductory calculus classes- basically the same stuff I'm learning now. So why have there been 15 editions of the same basic book since 1980?
    -the changes between the newest edition and the most recent edition usually included a different cover and a few new problems. Otherwise, the text and problems were exactly the same. Sometimes they bothered to scramble the numbering of the problems (probably to prevent people from doing homework with the old editions). You mentioned that other textbooks might contain mostly the same stuff. But the real problem with the introductory calculus books was that you couldn't even use older editions of the same book (which I could've bought on amazon for much cheaper than the bookstore prices).

    Where I went, the campus book store also relied on freshmen students' ignorance- yes there were used books for slightly cheaper at the book store, but a lot of the time it was still possible to buy older editions on amazon or elsewhere (for humanities classes especially, Shakespeare plays don't have any "problems" section). Freshmen often don't even think of this, and head straight to the bookstore and buy the expensive version even if they don't need to.

    If you're wondering whether there's a real problem with the textbook costs, it seems obvious to me that there is. There must be some ridiculous deal between the university and the campus book store. Someone must have been pressuring (or maybe even requiring) the professors to assign the newest editions of textbooks (Even though in the case of introductory calculus classes, a $5 1980s used old edition has the same material).