The United States faces a college affordability crisis, and nowhere is this problem more visible than in the cost of textbooks. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the price of college textbooks has increased 88 percent since 2006, adding up to roughly $1,200 per year on average.
High costs like these can have serious implications. A 2018 survey by research company Morning Consult and textbook company Cengage found that nearly half of college students had skipped meals to pay for course materials.
In response to these affordability problems, companies like Cengage have argued for e-textbooks as a low-cost alternative. In the abstract, the benefits of e-textbooks are obvious: no costs for printing or distribution, accessibility anywhere through the cloud, and less weight to lug around in between classes.
In practice, however, these benefits are far outweighed by the underlying motives of for-profit publishers. For these companies, including Cengage as well as Pearson and McGraw-Hill, e-textbook adoption has little to do with cost savings and a lot to do with power and control.
Most e-textbooks, for instance, come with an access key, purchased at the bookstore and unique to one user. Unlike a traditional paper textbook, it is rather difficult (if not impossible) for a student to share, copy, donate, or resell a licensed e-textbook from one year to the next.
For-profit publishers used to get around sharing and reselling by regularly releasing new editions, making older second-hand textbooks seem obsolete. With e-textbooks, all they need to do is limit access to one product key per person.
More importantly, e-textbooks allow publishers to get around their biggest source of competition: second-hand sales. Whereas students can currently go to a third-party seller like Bookholders for used textbooks on the cheap, an e-textbook is impossible to re-sell after its license key has been used.
Publishers claim that the lower price of digital textbooks makes them competitive with used paper textbooks, but this claim is highly suspect in the long run. After all, if big publishers can snuff out competition on the used market and force everyone to buy e-textbooks, they’ll have monopoly power to jack up prices all over again, like they’ve already been doing for the past four decades.
The real problem plaguing textbook affordability is not physical versus digital, it’s the big for-profit publishers versus the rest of us. University administrators and state lawmakers share some of the blame as well: in most states (including Florida), per-student higher education funding is lower today than it was in 2008, pushing state universities to sell off more and more university functions to private companies.
If we want to take textbook affordability seriously, we’ll need to take these companies to task. That can only happen if our administrators and legislators have the guts to stand up to them.
In the meantime, professors have a range of alternatives to for-profit publications and course materials. Per USF’s Textbook Affordability Project (TAP), these include open-access textbooks, online course reserves, and a wide variety of resources available through the USF Library.
Professors may also consider using open educational resources (OERs), which provide free teaching and learning materials with flexible licensing. These materials take more time to research and compile than a traditional textbook, but if faculty have time to invest, they can save their students money and fight corporate influence in education.
Nathaniel Sweet is a senior studying Political Science.