College textbook prices are unfair and unnecessary

When I begin my college classes today, my greatest fear will not be term papers or tough professors. Instead, I will be worrying about how much my textbooks will cost me this time, and whether the total will manage to break the $1,000 mark for the fourth semester in a row.

That number is not a typo, and I am not alone. College students across the nation are digging ever deeper into their pockets as pricetags continue to climb at a dizzying pace. A recent study by the Government Accountability Office revealed that prices are increasing at twice the rate of inflation, and they have risen more than 186 percent since 1986.

Not surprisingly, those kinds of numbers quickly add up. The same study estimated that books and supplies set the average student back almost $900 a year. For most in-state students at public colleges, that amount would be enough to cover more than 25 percent of their annual tuition.

These astonishing figures would be easier to accept if textbooks simply cost that much to manufacture. However, publishers routinely sell identical copies overseas for only a fraction of the US price. Last year, my friend bought for $60 an "international edition" math book the identical American twin of which sells for over $100 more. Even in England in recent years, the prices for identical books have been half those in the US.

Some publishers explain the huge discrepancies by blaming the local markets. Since books in general sell at lower prices overseas, publishers would suffer from weak demand if their textbooks were significantly more expensive. These companies also know that American students will continue to buy the books they need, even if prices skyrocket.

As a result, we get the pleasure of paying far more than our foreign counterparts for the same product. Ridiculously, publishers are using college students like me to subsidize the feeble international market.

For students from families that can comfortably afford college, these inflated prices are unfair and annoying. But for students from less privileged backgrounds who pinch and work to pay tuition (which, amazingly, has increased faster than textbooks), expensive books can be a major barrier to higher education.

Some of the most disadvantaged receive financial aid from their schools to pay for their supplies. However, there are also those students who are neither indigent enough to qualify for enough assistance nor wealthy enough to absorb the soaring cost of books. These are the students who truly pay the price.

Ironically, they pay thousands or tens of thousands of dollars in tuition to attend classes, but then cannot afford to buy the required reading materials. One of my friends simply refused to buy any books over $50 and relied on online summaries instead, to save money. Not surprisingly, his learning and his grades suffered as a result. The quality of a college education should not hinge on the cost of textbooks.

Unfortunately, little has been done in the way of bringing textbook prices back to earth. College students largely suffer in silence. Congress has yet to take any concrete steps toward change. The publishing industry has done nothing helpful.

Instead, publishers are actively working to keep prices in the stratosphere. One tactic is to frequently issue "new" editions of textbooks. Often publishers just shuffle the practice problems and add a few pages. If the professor assigns work out of the new edition, then older versions with their different problem and page numbers become obsolete. Students have to buy a new book instead of a cheap used one, even though the content in the two is essentially the same.

Another strategy is selling textbooks as part of a more expensive bundled set that can include anything from a book of practice problems to a computer CD-ROM. One of my political science books came with a CD-ROM of chapter outlines. I never used the disc, and I would not have bought it if I had been given a choice.

Publishers have defended these price-bloating add-ons as helpful and educational. Maybe. However, even if that is the case, students should be allowed to decide whether they want to spend more money to buy the extras. Fast food chains promote meals bundling burger and fries, but they also sell the burger on its own. The same principle should be applied to textbook supplements.

Publishers clearly possess the power to bring prices down. They could stop churning out new editions and toss out the gimmicks - or make them optional - but apparently they'd rather gouge students, which effectively decreases the accessibility of higher education.

So until there is enough outcry to force publishers to listen, I'll continue to dread my trips to the bookstore.

David Zhou is a junior at Harvard University.

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