Cooking the Textbooks: Putting our Bucks in a Bind
We all feel the vice-like grip of the maniacal textbook companies. They have our metaphorical balls in a bind (pun intended), and they have refused to let go for the last 20 years. Any UC Irvine student can relate to the dread of seeing the price tags for this quarter’s books when they pop up at the cash register. With all the money I’ve spent on textbooks, I could have fed myself for almost a year and a half, assuming that I spent $4 on every meal.
Prices for textbooks are out of control. The average textbook is triple the price it was in the 1980s. The inflation is partially thanks to the bells and whistles added by the publishing companies. Those useless CDs that professors don’t use are costing college students hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.
Prices are further increased by the classic manipulation of textbook editions. Check out your textbook and you will see that it is probably a sixth edition or whatever arbitrary issue they are on. Hint: The only difference between the sixth and seventh edition is the paragraph that the greedy publisher forced the author to add just before the deadline.
It makes sense for there to be constant revisions in fields like psychology or biology, but world history is not exactly a fluid science. Abraham Lincoln was shot over two centuries ago, and the results will not change next year—unless my time machine works. The new editions force us to pay ludicrous amounts of money for virtually no difference in content or quality.
Now Congress is helping the little guy, and by little guy, I mean affluent college student. A bill that is currently working its way through Congress will require publishers to sell textbooks without CDs and reveal prices via marketing materials so that professors could choose cheaper books.
The bill is only the first step toward alleviating the feeling that I have been stabbed when I purchase course materials. Until now, I could only vent my anger to other students. Now, I can vent my anger to my professors for not picking the cheapest books. However, I believe that the beat-down we receive will continue.
First, most professors do not care about the cost of textbooks. If you are a professor and you are reading this, congratulations, you might be the only professor to ever read the student paper. Also, please start assigning cheaper textbooks. I have had 36 professors at UCI, but only four expressed real concern about keeping the prices of our textbooks down and took action.
To Professors Barb Heine, Sarah Farmer, Sharon Block and Dickson Bruce, I salute you. The first three professors each took the time to produce a course-pack to save costs for their students. Instead of buying entire textbooks from which we would read only a few chapters, we were sold a compilation of the selections, saving us hundreds of dollars. Professor Bruce used old-fashioned cheap shopping to find reasonably-priced books that could convey the lessons he wished to teach us.
The professors are the lynch-pins of textbook prices. They control the demand and even a decent portion of the supply. If all of our professors took steps like those mentioned above, then the average UCI student would save almost a thousand dollars a year. Textbook companies would have to reevaluate their business practices and finally be forced to change their Scrooge-like ways.
Professors are, unfortunately, unmotivated to go to such efforts. Course-packs, while cheap and effective, take hours of additional work. In addition, I am forced to buy my professors’ own textbooks for whatever weak justifications they manage to make almost every quarter, which brings me to an important point: Why would professors want course books to be cheaper if they are the ones writing them?
For the sake of my grades and prospective letters of recommendation, I would not dare to say that professors are greedy or unconcerned about helping their students. Professors work hard, teach the next generation and are paid very little for it. It just seems that there is little proof that a majority of them are currently motivated to change the system.
I write this article with the hope that I am wrong. No one wants to pay half a grand for textbooks every quarter, and I doubt professors want their students to live hungry and blame their instructors for it. With luck and a complete, 180-degree turnaround of the human spirit, I hope that the nature of book purchasing on college campuses undergoes a drastic change so that professors work to keep costs down and students repay the favor with increased enthusiasm.
Kevin Pease is a third-year psychology and social behavior major. He can be reached at