Monday, January 29, 2018

Eli Once More Rants About the Cost of Textbooks (Part I)

At the beginning of time or this blog whichever came first, of which there is some discussion, Eli would, on occasion point to the textbook market as an example of what was killing students, faculty and education in the US.  These were very well written rants and deserve another reading.  Back then it was possible to obtain less expensive paperback copies outside of the US, however a US Supreme Court Decision holding that textbooks could be imported and resold has put the sword to that as the publishers simply disappeared the cheaper editions.

Discussion about textbook price is anchored to cost which has grown faster than that of drugs, to the point that it matches or exceeds pro rated tuition at community colleges or comprehensive public institutions. But, cost is a relatively minor issue in the choice of books by instructors. Textbooks are marketed and selected based on the services offered to faculty including desk copies, solution manuals, test banks, PowerPoints and more modern apps including online homework systems. This is vital for faculty at teaching institutions who teach three or more courses per semester and greatly appreciated even at the R1s.

Increasing the adoption of OOER requires understanding how textbooks have been marketed by commercial publishers in the past and how commercial textbook marketing is changing to meet online challenges. Textbook marketing can be described as an odd version of “business to business” (B2B) marketing most closely resembling how pharmaceuticals are marketed to physicians who then prescribe them for their patients. In normal B2B transactions the buyer resells what they have bought to their customers. In the traditional textbook market faculty select textbooks for their course but do not buy them and they do not sell them to their students (of course the elderly were victims of faculty selling their mimeographed "textbooks" although the INTERNET has pretty much killed that off). The college bookstore functions as a more traditional B2B marketer, passing the cost of the textbooks onto the students, but does not specify what should be ordered. The separation between marketing, ordering and selling leads to the current economic dysfunction in the textbook market.

A modern textbook costs of the order of $250 or even more in advanced courses. This is about tuition for a three credit course at a community college. Students resist registering for courses with expensive textbooks and when they do, often do not purchase the text which degrades their performance. In order to escape this trap students have in the past purchased used books. Today they pass along bootleg versions on the INTERNET. Most concerning, they often try to work without a textbook.


Traditionally publishers resisted by introducing new editions every few years.  At this point as one publisher told Eli, they only make money in the first year and profit is vanishing. Increasingly, publishers include software access to the text and online homework systems in the packages sold to students while charging significantly more for the online homework system if the book is not purchased new. Publishers have begun to rent online editions of the text to students, but this means that the students will not have access to the information in the text that they may in follow on courses. Finally, just as the pharmaceutical manufacturers, commercial publishers have started to market directly to students and their parents.

What needs to be done, well stay tuned.

8 comments:

William Connolley said...

FWIW, since my son is in his second year of engineering at Peterhouse, I asked him. Also (again, FWIW) when I was at SEH 30 years ago doing maths, we needed only very "standard" and not very expensive textbooks. So it looks like maybe you've got a very American problem? It seems like a somewhat odd one: your publishers aren't making a mint, so who is? I'm pretty sure you've suggested in the past that this has evolved into a way for lecturers to top up their salaries. Maybe it is just a very inefficient system.

He says (lightly edited):

"I personally have absolutely no need for textbooks. The entire course content is provided in the form of notes by the department. At the start of most lecture courses, the lecturer will usually mention a couple of textbooks which are relevant to the material, but they are only for if you want an alternative, and there is so much support available from other sources that you would likely never need them even if you are struggling with the provided content.

That said, Cambridge is possibly [somewhat] unique in this (I also have no idea how most other departments handle it, except that maths also does not use textbooks).

Textbooks seem outdated anyway, so this problem (I skimmed the post) will only hasten the adoption of better alternatives.

Also, the engineering department has a library which (while I have never visited it) I believe to be pretty well stocked.

Fernando Leanme said...

Seems to me that universities should include textbook cost as part of course design. I pay for a grandson to go to Valencia Polytechnic and he's not paying that much for the first year textbooks (it's mostly physics, calculus, chemistry, computer science, and some labs). They get a free set of math software (I think he's got Matlab and a drafting package free of charge). But things in the USA tend to be heterogenous, maybe other states do it better?

Andy S said...

Yes, four kids entering college soon. Help us Eli Rabbet, you're our only hope.

EliRabett said...

The textbook market in the US is, as the pharma market, very different. However as the pharma market the US textbook market has been very profitable up to now. As Eli said more to come.

Russell Seitz / Bright Water said...

"Finally, just as the pharmaceutical manufacturers, commercial publishers have started to market directly to students and their parents."

Since all aspiring to higher medical , dental and veterinary education must take organic chemistry lab courses, Eli should philanthophically draft a textbook on the DIY synthesis if expensive pharmaceuticals many of which retail for 100 times their wight in heroin, thus enabling ethical undergraduates to fund traditional textbook purchases and even tuition, by saving the lives of their ailing relatives by undercurtting CVS & Walmart

David B Benson said...

Eli, what is the energetics of
C + 2H2 --> CH4
?

CapitalistImperialistPig said...

Textbook prices can be ridiculous, but tuition is more of a problem. Many moons ago - roughly 670 of them - I used the third edition of a popular textbook for my first University Physics course. I paid $9.95 for it. In the bookstore of the local U, I noticed that they were now using the 12th or 13th edition of the same book and that it now cost $250.00.

That said, I find the thought of not having some handy shocking. In my experience, class notes usually are either just a summary of lectures or an early draft of a textbook, and in either case a pretty poor substitute for a good textbook, but your mileage may vary, probably especially at someplace like Cambridge.

EliRabett said...

Depends. If you are simply talking about the heat of reaction at 298 K and 1 atm and starting from graphite it is the heat of formation of methane. Otherwise you have to be more specific about the context.