Acton Institute Powerblog

Mark Perry: ‘The College Textbook Bubble is Starting to Deflate’

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The educational cronyism of textbook publisher cartels is coming to an end as digital alternatives are on the rise, or so says AEI’s Mark Perry in a recent article. “Hear that hissing sound?” he writes, “It’s the sound of the college textbook bubble starting to deflate. . . . The era of the college textbook cartel and $300 college textbooks is ending.”

I have written on this subject in the past for the PowerBlog (here and here), mentioning Perry’s coverage of the subject at that time, among others.

In particular, I would maintain my position today that if more affordable, quality alternatives exist, educators ought to take the time to research them and find ones that fit their curricula if they can. Students are already overburdened by student loan debt in order to get degrees of decreasing quality and utility. If a professor can do a little to lessen the financial burden of higher education, it is one small victory for the common good. And Christian educators ought to lead the way.

Perry summarizes the problem as follows:

Between January 1998 and September 2013, the CPI for college textbooks has increased by more than 144%, compared to an increase of only 44.4% for the CPI for all items, and an increase of only 0.6% for the CPI for recreational books. In real terms, the cost of college textbooks has increased by more than 69% over the last 15 years, while at the same time the real cost of recreational books has fallen by more than 30%.

The reason that the college textbook bubble is on an unsustainable price trajectory and is already starting to show some initial signs of deflating is because of the increasing amount of competition for the college textbook market.

Read more . . . .

Dylan Pahman Dylan Pahman is a research fellow at the Acton Institute, where he serves as managing editor of the Journal of Markets & Morality. He earned his MTS in Historical Theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. In addition to his work as an editor, Dylan has authored several peer-reviewed articles, conference papers, essays, and one book: Foundations of a Free & Virtuous Society (Acton Institute, 2017). He has also lectured on a wide variety of topics, including Orthodox Christian social thought, the history of Christian monastic enterprise, the Reformed statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper, and academic publishing, among others.


  • The cruel irony is that students can’t wait for these books to be remaindered, as they invariably are. I picked up a brilliant academic textbook on evolutionary biology for £2, two years old, cover price over £90.
    It carried an article subtly hinting that deterministic views on portecting the herd for reasons that are ultimately selfish, such as Richard Dawkins holds, are indicative of personality disorder – could that be why universities rejected it?

  • Don’t think that the digital market will not follow what the textbook companies and banks offering student loans have done. Because what they have done is simply applied free market principles, that is first after cornering the market. It started when companies bought their way into colleges to sell their products to the students. With a captive market, because college administrators have been part of the effort to businessfy colleges, different corporations helped up the cost of college because the captive market and the demand meant maximizing profits. And it isn’t just the publishing companies that do this, it’s also campus bookstores that have been taken over by businesses and corporations.

    So are the digital solutions the answer? If we embrace myopia, then the obvious answer is yes. But what happens when the textbook market is monopolized by digital companies and the demand goes up? Will we not get the same results as we have printed textbooks?

    Students have already found partial solutions by finding textbooks outside of the bookstores and those textbooks are cheaper where bookstores are not run by student gov’ts. Sometimes there are tradeoffs with buying textbooks that way but at least students have gotten around some of the costs.

    And what happens when our communications are monopolized by digital communications and we no longer have the physically printed word? What people outside of education don’t realize about online and digital education is that digital communication cannot replace printed material and in person teaching because it cannot offer all of their benefits. But there is one more problem. That problem is that we are looking more and more to machines for the answers than our physical capacities. That is especially true with math where there has been cultivated an overdependence on calculators. Students then equate math not with using logic but with pressing buttons. And relying on digital textbooks will be no different. Such students have little to no confidence in their own abilities to calculate answers.

    It isn’t that we shouldn’t use digital material. It is that we should not go into online and digital education in an all-or-nothing fashion. It is like the more we buy online, the fewer physical stores and employees there are to work in those stores. What do we do with those who suffer from technological unemployment? They become surplus people whom we tell to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

    The problem here is the medium, it is the businessfication of not just of education but of all society. So that switching from printed material to a digital medium will only give short term benefits but the same long term result.

    Dylan, IMO you are scapegoating a phantom menace.

    • Dylan Pahman

      “What do we do with those who suffer from technological unemployment?”

      When the automobile was invented, it put plenty of blacksmiths out of business, but it employed many many more and produced a product superior to the horse (and, incidentally, spared many horses from having shoes nailed into their hooves). For a while, people would yell, “Get a horse!” every time the rare car drove by. But ultimately one industry displaced another with great net gain for society as a whole. With textbooks, printers may lose business, but many graphic designers and programmers will gain employment. It is not clear that the losses will somehow outweigh the gains. The same could be said for print vs. online news.

      In short, what is happening with textbooks is simply creative destruction. Will a new cartel of digital textbook developers take their place? Maybe, but that is not certain right now. Digital textbooks are a medium in which a new start up does not need to pay for all the costs of printing. As the cost is lower, there is less of a barrier for new companies to challenge those that become established. Furthermore, as the cost is less the same profit (or more) can be made by charging less.

      “we are looking more and more to machines for the answers than our physical capacities.”

      I do not see how this applies at all. Human beings still need to write and publish textbooks, whether they are published in print or digitally. People can read words just as well from a Kindle as they can from a $100 hardcover textbook. Until we have robots writing textbooks for us there is no justification for Luddite fears here.

      • Dylan,
        The definition of technological unemployment is that technology is putting people out of work faster than it is employing them. And we see that across the board in different sectors of our economy. And the use of technology is one of the reasons why both employees are more productive but their wages have stagnated over the past few decades.

        My objection here isn’t the mere use of technology, it is the all-or-nothing approach that wants to erase older technology such as textbooks. The printed word has values than many can’t see simply because it is a different medium and the mind and eyes react differently to that than they do to the electronic medium. In addition, how can one mark up, write notes in the margins, dog ear pages, and so forth with kindles? Yes, there are things you can do with kindles that you can’t with books but the same is true the other way around.

        The advantages of books over electronic medium is a hot subject my former colleagues and I discussed often. And many of us think it is a mistake to TOTALLY replace books with electronic substitutes.

        And again, if we have businessfied this part of college, once digital mediums corner the market, those prices will go up just as textbooks have now.

        • Dylan Pahman

          “In addition, how can one mark up, write notes in the margins, dog ear pages, and so forth with kindles?”

          Kindles can do all of those things. It’s really easy.

          • It’s true. I do it all the time on my Kindle. But then, I’m pretty techno myself.

        • Wrong, Curt.

          Robots Are Not Killing Jobs, Says a Roboticist — A Georgia Tech professor of robotics argues automation is still creating more jobs than it destroys

          Steven Cherry: Henrik, you believe that automation is still creating more jobs than it’s killing, and that that will continue for the foreseeable future. What makes your version of the future so rosy?

          Henrik Christensen: Well, it has to do with the fact that if we sort of look back historically, then we’ve had these big changes, and I think one of the critiques we’re seeing right now is people are worried about what’s going to be the next big change.

          So if we go back 100 years, we had the invention of the assembly line, which created an entirely new set of jobs for doing automotive assembly. It did imply that the blacksmith basically went out of work. The same, you know, when I entered the work market in the late ’70s, early ’80s, the secretaries that I worked with were deeply worried about “Am I going to lose my job because the typing pool is going away?” The typing pool did go away, and those jobs were displaced, but if you go and look at the statistics, we have today twice as many administrative professionals as we had in the early ’80s. They do different things now. They arrange meetings, they do travel, they do all of these other things that they didn’t do before.

          So in reality, by introducing computers, we’ve created a number of new professions that have led to new jobs. And I see no reason why, going forward, we will not have new paradigm changes that will create new jobs. So I see 3-D printing, I see a number of other things that I think will create new jobs, that will put us in a better position.

          • John,

            Did you read his article? He said in the short-run, jobs are being lost at a faster rate than being replaced. But in the long-run, he THINKS that increased automation will create more jobs. Now suppose his speculation is right, more jobs for whom? Not all are capable of the doing the new jobs that increased automation provides not because of education but because of aptitude. So increased jobs for whom? And how quickly are we requiring the work force to keep changing and at what expense?

            And did you read some of the jobs that he wanted to be done by robots? He wants those who require institutional care to partially served by robots. Don’t you see a dehumanization when we uncritically embrace technology as our savior for the future and take an all-or-nothing approach to it?

            In addition, below is a link to an article that more carefully weighs the impact of increased automation and employment and pays more attention to both sides of the argument here. I would add one thing to the following article, technological unemployment is not the only explanation for the sluggish employment picture. Outsourcing to other countries also contributes. But both are there to reduce labor costs and if that is the mindset, what is the employment and pay prospects for those who don’t have the aptitude to fit in the new technological economy? Your embracing of more automation reminds me of those who unconditionally embrace the free market. Neither takes a significant effort in applying critical thought to try to foresee future ramifications.


          • Marc Vander Maas

            Luddite |ˈlədˌīt|

            a member of any of the bands of English workers who destroyed machinery, esp. in cotton and woolen mills, that they believed was threatening their jobs (1811–16).
            • a person opposed to increased industrialization or new technology: a small-minded Luddite resisting progress.

            Feel free to mail your future responses to:

            Acton Institute
            98 E. Fulton St.
            Grand Rapids, MI 49503

            We’ll be sure to have someone transcribe your letter and post it.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            And allow me to preemptively post and respond to your next comment: Why do I have to descend to the level of personal attacks? Well, Curt, it’s not a personal attack so much as it’s a gentle bit of mockery, and I do it because you make it so, so easy.

          • Marc,
            It all depends on whether you view others as equals or not and how well you do at resisting temptation.

            Our conversation regarding technology and unemployment reminds me of when the wife and I argue about this regarding using easy pay vs going to a toll collector. My argument isn’t necessarily about the specific application as it is about us considering how our decisions and embracing of the new affects others. If all we do is to consider how whatever is new just affect us, then don’t belong to the same group of people whom Anthony Bradley describes as narcissistic? Aren’t we just going through life in a self-absorbed manner? And doesn’t being so myopic lead us to conform rather than question?

            So go ahead and mock if that is what you are doing. Realize that our comments about others reveal as much about ourselves, if not more, than they do about the people we are commenting on.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            It all depends on whether you view others as equals or not and how well you do at resisting temptation.

            Can you point me to what I wrote in this thread that you’re responding to with that statement? Because I really have no idea.

            As for toll booths, I remember riding on the Tri State tollway around Chicago when I was a kid. I remember the inconvenience of getting stuck in a big tangle of traffic every few miles, waiting for everyone to find exact change, waiting for people to receive change from the toll booth operators, and looking around at all the people with Illinois license plates while feeling some sense of pity for those who had to deal with this every day. When I go around Chicago now and see traffic buzzing through the EZ pass lanes, I do think of all the people whose lives are no longer regularly inconvenienced by those jams, and I’m happy for them. I bet for a lot of them, that’s a few hours per week that they can now spend with family or being productive in some other way. Unless you “embrace myopia” and insist on looking only at potential drawbacks.

          • Marc,

            Do you read what you write:

            And allow me to preemptively post and respond to your next comment: Why do I have to descend to the level of personal attacks? Well, Curt, it’s not a personal attack so much as it’s a gentle bit of mockery, and I do it because you make it so, so easy.

            And again, the question is not whether we use new technology, it is whether we employ an all-or-nothing thinking when it comes to technology. The all thinking says to embrace it without criticism. The nothing thinking says we reject it without self-criticism. With technological unemployment being a reality, with job hours being cut, with important logical skills being abandoned (see Alone Together), the diminishing of basic communication skills along with less in person interaction, and diminishing creative skills for children (see just to begin with, there is enough evidence to warrant against an unconditional embrace of technology which refuses to ask critical questions.

            We should use some technology and hold off on others. What is important here is the processes we use to determine what technology to employ and what technology to hold off on.

            And, BTW, logically speaking, counterexamples, such as your example of the tolls around Chicago, provide no help in disproving existential quantifiers. In addition, such a counterexample does not show what is lost by making all toll collection through EZ pass. You only show the immediate sacrifice of those in the lines.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            You’re responding to arguments that haven’t been made.

          • Marc,
            Not at all. The tendencies demonstrated by conservatives on the acton blog are shared amongst other conservatives. Those tendencies focus on individualism abd the association of progress with the financial bottom line and new technology. And there is a tendency to apply some degree of all-or-nothing thinking on the objects of focus as well as an emphasis on the immediate vs long-term.

            So when you contrast passing through ez pass vs waiting in long lines and how people are not inconvenienced by those lines. But that is a narrow focus on the driver without regard for those jobs that were replaced by ez pass and the questions of what those people who were replaced are doing for work now as well as what job opportunities are no longer open for those who need to work low skill jobs. The same can be said when some celebrate online shopping as a replacement for going to stores. They celebrate their immediate convenience while ignoring the impact such increased shopping has on physical stores manned by people.

            Or as one store employee told me about the automated checkout lanes, their presence have reduced his hours at work which means a reduced chance to earn more money.

            The consumer’s approach is to focus solely on the immediate convenience benefits and the owners’ approach is to focus on the bottom line. But what about the employees who have either jobs or employment opportunities taken away by these conveniences? What about the impact that their unemployment and reduced consumer power has on everybody?

            Now if you note, we have talked about all of these items in our previous comments. So I don’t buy your comment that I am responding to arguments that haven’t been made.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Curt – let me refer you to your earlier comment.

            Whereas I am for a balanced approach to new technology that includes criticism that allows one to foresee future ramifications. You seem to support an uncritical, all-or-nothing thinking approach.

            1) on this post, your entire approach has been to focus on the potential downsides of technology for employment and to fret about the dangers that e-readers pose to traditional paper books. There is no balance to what you’re writing, no taking into account the potential benefits of easier access to literature, self-publishing, lower cost for consumers, etc. You focus exclusively on the potential downsides.

            2) you then make the assumption that I support an “uncritical, all-or-nothing thinking approach,” and do so based on nothing other than your pre-conceived notions of how conservatives think. You set up a straw man, knock it down, and then pat yourself on the back for being so high-minded.

            Not one person in this thread has suggested that we stop printing paper books, that we move exclusively toward e-books, that we fire all the workers who run printing presses, etc. No one is arguing that we make an “unconditional embrace of technology which refuses to ask critical questions.” That’s a phantom menace that only you see in this thread, Curt. Dylan has written a post observing that technology has advanced, and that advance is having a positive effect on prices in the textbook market. This has prompted you, as part of your continuing effort to troll as many threads on this blog as possible, to make a strenuous effort to adjust the focus of the post to any possible negative impact this might have in the short term, while ignoring the positive effects that technological advance usually has over the long term. Also, I am pretty convinced at this point that you really are a Luddite.

            Have a swell weekend.

          • Marc,
            Whereas I am for a balanced approach to new technology that includes criticism that allows one to foresee future ramifications. You seem to support an uncritical, all-or-nothing thinking approach.

            So if you wish to associate me with the other side of the all-or-nothing spectrum, you are misrepresenting me.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            I refer you to my next comment.

        • Roger McKinney

          Technology will create jobs faster than it destroys them, but only in a free market. It’s very easy to kill jobs faster than the market can create them in a socialist economy like ours.

    • Roger McKinney

      It’s very possible that a socialist economy such as ours will destroy jobs at a rapid rate. Technology will always destroy more jobs than it creates in the short run because that’s how we get productivity growth. Technology must enable us to do the same work with fewer people. In the long run, and only in a free market, the increased wealth of consumers made possible by technology will create far more jobs than it destroys in the short run, but only in a free market.