Memories of buying college text books…

I read an article on MSNBC’s Website, “College textbook prices have risen 1,041% since 1977” and wished I was shocked, but I remember buying text books when I was in college. Aside from tuition and school fees, the price of text books was the biggest hit to my bank account – and unavoidable most of the time as students don’t have too many options to comparison shop. When I was an undergraduate from 1999 to 2002, email was still a big deal, so online book purchases weren’t as prevalent, and renting text books wasn’t as much of a thing as it is now. As an English major, I was luckier than most of my peers because we English majors read novels – so for my major classes, the costs weren’t insane (except for the intro survey lit courses that required Norton anthologies that cost a bundle – these crazy thick brick-like books, with tissue-thin onion paper that ripped if you looked at them hard).

But I went to a state university that required I be well-rounded, so it wasn’t enough that I was well-versed in Shakespeare or Jane Austen, I had to take science, math, sociology, etc. And that’s where they got me. For a biology class I took over the summer, I had to fork over something like $140 – this book came with a nifty CD-Rom (I’m dating myself), which we didn’t used. We were warned that only the latest edition would be acceptable, and were discouraged to buy older editions. Of course our knowledge of biology changes, so it makes sense that we have to keep abreast. That’s what I told myself as I paid the $140. And again, I was lucky in that I was taking the class in the summer, so I didn’t have to buy any other books.

So, the class came and went – I got a C, by the way – we dissected a fetal pig and learned about cells – and when it was time to sell the book back, I was offered the generous rate of $1. $1. It was explained to me that the offer was so low because there was a new edition in the hopper for the upcoming semester so my book wouldn’t be good anymore. I didn’t take the $1 out of principle and kept the book (which is collecting dust somewhere in the caverns of my bookshelves).

The lesson learned from this experience – which was repeated, though not to as dramatic effect as the $1 offer with my other text books – was that the text book industry is kind of a racket. Don’t get me wrong, college is not a racket – I love college and think if higher education is for you, then you should go to school, any school. But text books sales are some of the easiest ways that students get price gouged. The problem – as pointed out in the MSNBC article – is that the students aren’t exactly in a position of power or negotiation. A student has to buy the book, or she can’t do the assignments and keep up with the work.

When I was in college, a professor friend of mine urged me to buy a different edition of a book – he confided that often the text books’ changes were minor. Stupidly, I agreed, and for a science class, I bought the prior edition of the text we were using. While the information was the same, the organization of the book was different enough – and some of the assignments, including word problems, were different enough, that it took some major scrambling for me to keep up. Added to that issue was that during class, we would read from the book and discuss – something I could never volunteer for, as I had a different book, and therefore a huge chunk of my class time was spent trying to locate the subject discussed in my book, and raise my hand enough to make an impression (class participation is a huge chunk of undergrad grades). I bothered a lot of my classmates during that class, furtively whispering for help in keeping up with the discussion because I couldn’t afford the book.

Apparently things are better for the younguns because now we can rent books from online vendors. But the renting from online vendors thing could be difficult for many lower income students, as well, as you need a credit card and/or debit card to pay for the books – and the rental fees can still be very high. When in college, I paid with my debit card because I often lived paycheck to paycheck depending on how many hours I banked at my soda jerk job. It wasn’t unheard of for me to have a zero (or a negative) balance after shopping in the campus bookstore. And I found it very helpful owning my book because I could write notes in the margins, highlight important points, and make meaningful annotations – none of this is possible if you’re renting a book.

Others have suggested that students should just descend on the library en masse and take out the text books on reserve. Except that’s a problem when there’s usually only one book on reserve and the book’s not allowed to leave the library. So the student is either left furiously scrambling to get her homework done at the library, or she’s racking up a not inconsiderable amount of charges on her copy card. And while she’s doing all this, there are three or four other students, waiting furiously for the book to be returned, so that they can then either furiously scramble to get their homework done at the library, or rack up a non inconsiderable amount of money on their copy cards.

Another option thrown around is share – why don’t you share the book. This option seems the best one, except, let’s be honest, we’re talking about college students, here. I was in an acting class with a friend and we had to do Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett’s classic play The Diary of Anne Frank. We decided to buy one copy and share it, as we were broke as a joke. Initially, I didn’t want to do that as I worried that our schedules would inevitably cause one of us to need the book when the other had it – and la-di-da, that just so happened to happen: my friend had an emergency trip to Council Bluffs, IA she needed to take and she peeled out of Chicago in her hoopty with our single copy of The Diary of Anne Frank bouncing around on the floor of the backseat alongside empty McDonald’s soda cups and crumbled Doritos bags.

And for the most part teachers are sympathetic. I say for the most part, because, unfortunately, more than once in my long college career (this is counting my undergrad years, my MA years, and now my MFA years), a professor has blithely sniped during class, “I know these books may be expensive, but that’s college. If you can’t afford them, maybe you shouldn’t be in college.” Again, the vast majority of my teachers were sympathetic and equally appalled at the price of text books, but given that I’ve had even more than one professor say something like chaps my ass. College is expensive enough – the extra burden of text books makes students feel like they’re being nickel and dimed.

So what’s the solution? Well, there isn’t an easy one because there is a lot of money to be made with making students buy new text books each semester. And teachers are often forced to assign textbooks from a list given to them by their college administrator. Since most college professors are adjuncts making pennies, they are the last ones to want to stick it to their students’ wallets – so the universities should institute a cap on how much text book costs. Simply refuse to work with a publisher that would charge an 18 year-old $150 for a book. If that means going with a different publisher than so be it. I’ve had professors who balked at the crazy high prices and did more creative things like putting together copied packets of articles. Professors would work off the text book, using the assignments, but then for reading and writing, we would go outside the text book and interact with op-ed pieces, journal articles, magazines, that sort of thing. The discussions in class were much more urgent and timely, and we weren’t lugging around heavy books (with heavier price tags). This option is great, but one of privilege – since most professors are adjuncts who stitch and cobble a full-time schedule (if they’re lucky) be zipping across cities and suburbs to teach at three, four different schools, they don’t have time to patiently sow home-made text books themselves. And this is where students and adjuncts should unite – because this is yet another example of how students would benefit of universities hired more full-time professors to teach at their schools: then these teachers would have offices and resources and time (which they are being paid for), during which they can be creative and figure out  how to make teaching more accessible to all of their students.

The high price of education is already making people wary of college. The prices of text book only affirm the cynical view that college is merely a way to game people out of their hard-earned money. Nothing could be further from the truth. College – at its best – can be one of the most rewarding and edifying experiences in a person’s life. But it has to be available to as wide a set of people as possible, otherwise, those naysayers who say things like “college = the biggest racket around” feel justified.

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Filed under commentary, Nonfiction, Uncategorized, Writing

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