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Textbook prices

At today’s Science Division Meeting, we had a presentation by our Instructional Support Committee representative about textbook prices. The discussion about textbook prices has been going on for awhile, at least since I last served on ISC about two years ago. As a parent and as a faculty member interested in making sure that our students can appropriately access course materials, I am quite interested in textbook prices and availability.

Today’s figures were interesting. The bookstore estimates that the average student would spend $550 per semester if they bought their textbooks new at the bookstore [1]. Student financial aid is computed as if textbooks cost $450 per semester. 61% of students reported spending between $100 and $300 dollars and 17% reported spending more than $300.

How do students spend less? Some buy used [2]. Some book share [3]. Some just don’t buy the book and cross their fingers that they can access the information another way. Some buy an earlier edition [4]. Some may even bootleg the text [5].

Why do students spend less, or choose not to just purchase the textbook? Because having the textbook cost as part of your financial aid computation is different than actually having the money. In general, textbooks come out of student/family contributions. Those contributions are a stretch for most students and their families [7], and so they look to conserve where they can. But not having the textbook in class can often reduce the quality of the class experience.

How do we ensure that every student can legally and affordably have the texts they need for class? That’s the big problem. I know that ISC has been working on it for more than two years, and still does not have a good model. There are, however, some things faculty members can do in the meantime [8].

  • Faculty members should pay attention to the cost of textbooks. It seems that too many have no idea of what their texts actually cost students [9].
  • Faculty members can consider using older editions of textbooks [10].
  • If faculty members are using older editions, the department could gather a supply to loan to students [11].
  • Faculty members can write their own materials [14,15].
  • Faculty members can look for appropriate open textbooks or other public readings for their courses [16].
  • Faculty members can get their orders in on time so that students can spend time comparison shopping for the right book.
  • Faculty members can clarify for students whether or not students are required to have the supplements that publishers use to jack up prices.

What do I do about all of this? It depends on the class. For some classes, such as CSC 151 and CSC 282, I write the material myself or with colleagues [17]. For some classes, like Tutorial and TEC 154, I tend to accumulate cheap used copies of the books I use and loan those copies to students in the classes [18]. For some classes, I use textbooks because I think they do a better job than I can. In those cases, I still try to look for reasonably priced textbooks. For CSC 321 (Software Design), I use one book that is available in Kindle form for $10 and a second that is available for free online. However, it does look like I may be adding a $40 printed book to the course. For CSC 301, I’m likely to use Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, and Stein [19]. It lists at $99 which, while higher than I’d like, is comparatively reasonable. It’s also a book that students will benefit from having on their shelves. And it’s written much better than anything I could write. What will I do if I’m called upon to teach our theory course? I’m not sure. Sipser is considered the standard, but it’s expensive. The book I used as a student is probably too out of date. I’d likely spend some time considering the options.

What do I think the appropriate long-term strategy is to handle textbook prices? I’m not sure. I really do think that a book like CLRS [20] is worth the money, and is better than what I could produce. On the other hand, I think many other of us can produce useful materials for the courses we teach, and think there’s a benefit to us doing so.

What will happen? I have no idea. I hope that we move in directions that appropriately support students.

[1] I expect that the average is not particularly representative, since courses vary widely in the texts they require. Some are clearly more than the $137.50 per course the $550 estimates, and some are clearly much less. Let’s take a sampling of introductory courses in Chemistry, Economics, English, Mathematics, and Spanish as a starting point.

Chemistry 210 uses Exploring Chemical Analysis. The current edition is a paperback and lists for $199.00 new.

Economics 111 uses either Essential Foundations of Economics by Bade (list $255; the bookstore has it used for $89), Economics by Acemoglu (list $324), or Economics by Krugman (list $280, the bookstore has it used for $210).

English 120 also varies from section to section. Section 1 uses three texts that total $120 or so. Section 2 uses $60 or so. Section 3 uses three texts that total $85 or so. Section 4 uses three texts that total $62 or so. Section 5 uses five that total $78 or so.

Mathematics 131 (Calc I) uses the 6th edition of Stewart. That’s available used at the bookstore for $45.00 or can be rented for $10.00. If you were to buy it new, it would be $263.75.

Sociology 111 uses Sociologically Examined Life at $82, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City at $28, and Ten Questions at $111.

Spanish 106 uses Puentos De Partida which lists at $144, Volume 1 of the Workbook/Lab Manual, which lists at $99, and Volume 2 of the Workbook/Lab Manual, which also lists at $99. It stuns me that a publisher feels that it’s ethical to charge $99 for something like a lab manual, which cannot normally be resold.

Most of those introductory courses seem to be more than the estimated amount per course.

[2] I like for finding the best prices on used books.

[3] For example, two students might chip in to buy the book and alternate ownership. Similarly, one student might buy one book for the class and another buy the other, and they trade back and forth.

[4] Using an earlier (or later) edition can make it difficult to find the problems.

[5] For better or worse [6], the Internet is teeming with illegal copies of most textbooks.

[6] Okay, it’s for worse.

[7] Or the students themselves, if their families cannot or do not contribute.

[8] Some of these were suggested by ISC; some come from experience or from colleagues.

[9] My colleagues were surprised to hear that the Sipser theory text lists at $187; one noted that they thought it was offensively expensive when it listed at $100.

[10] The second edition of Sipser is currently available used for about $25.

[11] I’ve found that if I ask nicely [12], most students will donate their books to a departmental loan.

[12] Or ask nicely and offer $10 or so

[14] The CS faculty are way too inclined to write their own materials. We’ve done it for CSC 151, CSC 161, and CSC 207, among others. Some of our colleagues in Math are doing the same; one has produced a really nice book for Linear Algebra.

[15] Ideally, if faculty write their own materials, they should share them freely.

[16] Our library faculty have offered to help in this endeavor.

[17] You’ve seen some of the material I’ve written for CSC 282.

[18] Unfortunately, I lose a few textbooks each semester when I serve as a lending library.

[19] A.k.a. The brick.

[20] Cormen, Leiserson, Rivest, Stein.

Version 1.0.1 of 2017-03-14.