Reasons behind high book prices disturbing

Published 3:47 pm Thursday, August 14, 2008

Hattiesburg American, Hattiesburg

The ever-escalating price of textbooks has been a sore — and expensive — spot for students and parents for more than a few years.

Students in Mississippi now pay an average of $800 a semester for textbooks. To put that in perspective, it’s one-third the cost of a semester’s tuition at the University of Southern Mississippi. That’s a big bite of any student’s budget, but especially in Mississippi, where per capita income is one of the lowest in the country.

Sign up for our daily email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

A number of pernicious trends are at work to keep textbooks at almost ridiculous levels, and to keep students from ordering used books at much more reasonable costs.

A story in the Hattiesburg American illustrated several of them:

Constant new editions: Textbooks are updated frequently — and certainly the need for some of that is questionable. That means students are forced to buy new editions, or can’t sell their existing edition back.

Bundling: Textbooks come shrink-wrapped with CDs and workbooks, and that hikes the price. If the professor has chosen it for his or her curriculum, students are forced to buy it, and, in the same Catch-22, can’t sell the component parts back to the bookstore.

Customization: In this nifty scheme, professors get to “customize” the product — for example, with the university’s logo or the professor’s name and picture. Professors can add tailored chapters. Again, students cannot resell the customized package.

Why select a customized book? Well, in some cases, publishers offer a kickback to the professor or department that chooses this vanity scheme.

That is so clearly unethical we are astounded it goes on. Donna Davis, director of graduate students in the College of Business at USM, told reporter Valerie Wells of a pitch by textbook publisher Pearson Education for a customized book that would have returned 15 percent of the jacket price to the faculty. Her committee rejected the offer.

Bill Powell, USM’s interim assistant provost, said he had heard of such arrangements but did not know of any specific examples.

We are surprised that Powell could not answer definitively whether that practice went on at USM. We fear that in this day and age of making sure departments are “revenue generators,” the temptation to get textbooks kickbacks is probably too big to ignore for strapped academics.

It’s still unethical, and if it’s going on, the practice needs to be examined and called out.

What Powell did say is that most professors don’t truly consider the burden that the costs of these textbooks place on students. He said cost would not be the deciding factor when professors examine what book and bundle to choose.

Cost may not be the deciding factor, but it certainly should be part of the deliberation process.

It’s incumbent upon professors to take a hard look at their textbook-ordering practices and figure out if there is a better way to approach it.