Saturday, March 10, 2007

College Textbooks are a Scam

Minnesota is trying to figure out what to do about the absurdly out-of-control prices of college textbooks. It's one of those business scams that will eventually be the subject of a muckraking documentary, no doubt. The textbook companies, and there are only a few of them in this country, charge obscene prices for the textbooks that university students need for their courses. Essentially, the student pays about $100 for a large paperback book! And the hardback ones are usually a bit more. And, if we're talking about a course like "Business 101" that a lot of kids want to take, the "text packet" can approach $200! Worst of all, after they've gone through several dumbed-down editions, some of these books are largely worthless. Our Civ textbook has a reference in an illustration caption to the "Cromwellian rebels" in the English Civil War- and no explanation of who Oliver Cromwell was in the entire book!

The main problem is that they charge entirely too much for these books. And, actually, the main reason that they go through so many editions is to force the kids to buy a new book, instead of buying a used one. Trust me, the editions sure aren't improving! Academics should be very concerned about this. You don't have to be a raging Marxist to worry about the fact that higher ed is simultaneously becoming the de facto key to every white collar job in the country and out of the price range of a working class family. Academics should be worried that we're becoming the gate-keepers for the class system.

Also, we should be concerned because the students feel 'ripped off' if we don't stick to the textbook in our lectures. And, after they've paid hundreds of dollars for these books, they have a perfect right to. The bind this puts younger profs in is that, if the book sucks, they want to supplement it- which makes students feel like they paid an arm and a leg for a book that they're hardly using- and if you don't supplement the texts in lecture, you feel guilty because most of these books really do suck. If anything, companies like McGraw Hill could be taught in an econ class as an example of the declining quality of products produced by companies that have a monopoly.

One way around all of this, and what I plan to do when I teach these classes, is not to assign a textbook at all. Instead, some professors assign a few paperbacks from cheaper publishing houses. We have a few World Civ profs who assign two or three "classic" paperbacks that run about $5-10 a piece through Amazon. The university bookstore will stock them, and this way the students don't get gouged. Sometimes, they can be harder to teach. However, quite often they're easier to teach to because you don't need to spend class time correcting mistakes that really shouldn't be there in a $125 book!

In general, I think we really need to seriously consider what's happening to higher education in this country. In a general sense, universities are gouging the students, while adding a very vaguely defined "value" to their education (usually shit like getting Snoop Dogg to play the Spring Fling!), and textbook companies are raising the prices of courses by about %50 with the textbook prices. Higher education is both a requirement for a decent life in America and a luxury item, and a lot of people are feathering their nests with that paradox. My accountant father-in-law looks at the tuition rates of the children of his clients and is horrified. They don't have these high tuition rates in Canada and he has asked me how it would be possible for a working class, or even middle-class family to send their child to university without taking on a lifetime of debt. The dirty truth is that it's not possible anymore, and it's not happening anymore.
(Note: If anyone is wondering how seriously I take this issue, I have actually started the process of sawing off the branch that I'm sitting on by arguing to the Gen Ed department at Mall U. that they really don't need recitations, or TAs for most of their courses, including World Civ.)


Jen P. said...

And how. Except for the TA part. You're on a roll, Rufus. Good posts!

Rufus said...

Thank you very much!