Blog author: dpahman
by on Thursday, November 29, 2012

According to AEI author Mark Perry, there is another education-related “bubble” to worry about: the textbook bubble. He writes that this textbook bubble “continues to inflate at rates that make the U.S. housing bubble seem relatively inconsequential by comparison.” He continues, “The cost of college textbooks has been rising at almost twice the rate of general CPI inflation for at least the last thirty years.” Given that many students use loan money to purchase books as well as pay for classes, we might think of this as one of the many sources pumping air into the student debt bubble. But what choice do students (or professors, for that matter) have than to surrender to the textbook “cartel,” as Perry characterizes it? This bubble popping, while a bad thing for the textbook bubble-boys committed to the old, cartel-style model, could be a small relief and contribute to slowing the growth rate of the student debt bubble.

After a few semesters as a college student, I eventually caught on that textbooks can sometimes be a royal waste of money. Often they boil down the material to the most basic narratives, in many cases failing to rival the quality of Wikipedia. Worse, it seemed that every few years a new edition would be released, causing the resale value to plummet of the overpriced textbook I was required to buy but did not need to use. If the next year a class requires the 13th edition instead of the 12th—which, though it may have updated its bibliography, often has not substantially changed its content—then good luck getting your $90 back for that Intro to Whatever textbook that you will never open again. In many cases the resale value was only about 10% of the purchase price, unless one resold the book online rather than back to the school bookstore. In some cases the book would simply not be bought back; students were required to buy the new edition rather than make due with an older one and fumble through the different page ranges for assignments.

Instead of buying my textbooks right away, I would usually wait a few weeks to purchase them, once I could tell whether or not they were really needed for the class. In several cases I simply didn’t buy my textbooks, and I typically found this to be no disadvantage.

Thankfully, there are, in fact, even better solutions and more and more professors seem to be catching on, to the benefit of their debt-ridden students. Perry writes that “the free, Wikipedia-based principles textbook model … has now arrived.” In particular, he highlights Boundless Learning:

Once a student or professor creates a free account at Boundless Learning, they get free access to textbook materials that are organized to closely duplicate the material in a standard $180 textbook like Mankiw’s Principles of Macroeconomics on a chapter-by-chapter basis.  In Mankiw’s chapter on “The Monetary System” he covers these topics: The Meaning of Money, the Federal Reserve System, Banks and the Money Supply and the Fed’s Tools of Monetary Controls.  In the corresponding materials from Boundless Learning, they have comparable sections on Money, the Description and Purpose of Money, U.S. Central Banking, the Role of Banks in Money Creation and the Tools of the Federal Reserve.

He goes on:

As might be expected, the textbook publishing cartel isn’t taking this competition sitting down and they (Cengage Learning, Pearson Education, and MacMillan Higher Education) filed a lawsuit in March accusing Boundless of copyright infringement, false advertising, and unfair competition.  Boundless has denied all of the charges.

So the companies that had unfairly captured a market are now suing because their product is inferior and unable to adapt with the times.

Thankfully, as Perry notes, it likely will not matter in the long run if these textbook bubble-boys win:

Whether or not Boundless Learning prevails in the lawsuit, its open-source, Internet-based, free textbook model is more likely to be the textbook model of the future than the status quo model of the traditional publishing cartel.  And for that, students (consumers) of the future will be much better off, thanks to all of the “unfair” competition taking place today.

Indeed, among other creative solutions to the problem are Lander’s online introductory philosophy resource, as well as free texts on sites like archive.org, gutenberg.org, and Google Books. I know of a history professor who is able to gather all of his required readings from Google Books and a philosophy professor who makes use of Lander’s philosophy site and Project Gutenberg, both with the low price of $0 to their students.

The current character of American education raises many moral concerns, but this, at least, is a small one that in many cases ought not to be too difficult to remedy. For professors who are able, I highly recommend looking into similar resources for their own classes, not simply for the financial savings to students but for the common good.

As for the bubble-boys, I say let this bubble pop, and haste the day.