Do textbooks cost too much?

Published 3:00 am Friday, May 12, 2017

The Class of 2017 is about to graduate, having faced the highest cost of attending college ever.  Tuition has outpaced inflation for decades, and today attention is focused on all components of college, including textbooks.  Efforts to control the cost of textbooks should not ignore economics.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that tuition and textbook prices increased 240% and 186% between 1986 and 2004, compared with inflation of 72%.  The $10 billion annual textbook market exhibits some of the same cost disease seen with tuition, although not quite as bad.

Textbooks attract attention because they are a highly visible component of cost: After paying thousands for tuition, students and parents must buy books that can cost up to $400 each.  Such prices produce significant sticker shock.  Seventy percent of students report not buying texts for at least one class.

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Do textbooks cost too much?  To begin answering this, recognize that textbooks are much more than typed lecture notes.  They are edited, reviewed by experts in the field, feature high quality graphics, and include lots of study materials.  Instructors receive powerpoint slides and many test questions.  While this seemingly makes my job easier at students’ expense, the materials do improve the student experience.  The slides are much better than I could produce, and test questions get pre-tested for clarity.

To conclude that textbooks cost too much, we must know how much they “should” cost.  Economists generally don’t know how much textbooks – or any other product – should cost.  We do know that competition keeps costs as low as possible.  The best way to keep a publisher from over charging is having another publisher trying to sell a competing text.

The nature of the textbook market, however, limits competition.  Students have an assigned text for a class, and so cannot choose based on their personal preferences as they can for most products.  Professors often choose the text we like without considering the price.

Prices and comparison shopping are critical in assessing whether a textbook’s extra features produce value commensurate with the extra cost.  Are the editing, professional graphics, and study aids really worth the extra cost?  Students answer this question each semester.

Competition still occurs, partly because students do not always buy the textbooks.  Used books, book rentals, and e-books all compete with new texts.  Additionally, numerous publishers sell textbooks.  If the best books all sell for $200, we can likely infer because that it simply costs that much to produce quality books.

Some remedies for the cost of textbooks could make things worse.  Lawmakers could enact a maximum legal price for texts.  Such price “ceilings,” however, do not reduce the cost of creating a text.  A price ceiling merely drives books which cost more than the maximum off the market.

Increasing fees and providing required texts to all students is another dubious remedy.  This forces students to pay for the texts.  Even if administrators push faculty to use less expensive books, students no longer get to choose for themselves.

How will these remedies affect students?  Let’s consider three options: purchasing the assigned text with all the supplemental materials for $250; purchasing a different or older text with no supplemental materials for $100; and purchasing no text, attending class every day, and watching videos posted on YouTube.  A price ceiling set at $100 would take the $250 book off the market, while including the $250 book in required fees eliminates the other options.  Students will not be able to choose their best option.

Some measures can enable competition.  For example, the Higher Education Opportunity Act mandates access to textbook information to facilitate comparison shopping.  Professors could avoid basing classes too closely on the assigned text instead of the subject.

The old adage that “you get what you pay for” cautions that we cannot magically reduce production costs.  Competition is the best way to control costs, and we should keep this economics lesson in mind when considering textbooks.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision.  The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

About Dan Sutter

I am the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.

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