New semester, same burden

Oldest trick in the (text)book: gouging college students

Creative Commons 0/Public Domain

As students across the United States gear up for a new academic year, I can’t help but feel nostalgic about when my mom would take me shopping for school supplies. It was so easy, back then when everything was new, to feel wonder about the variety of supplies I’d end up buying — what color notebooks I’d buy, and whether or not my pencil-case would be replete with stickers. Nowadays, however, the beginning of a school year brings on a different kind of anticipation — and not the good kind. “How much money will I have to spend on course materials this semester? Will it be a cheap semester, and only cost me around $400? Or will I end up paying $700 for textbooks again?”

While younger students have to worry about toxic materials, as noted in the new U.S. PIRG School Supplies Safe Shopping Guide, those pursuing higher education get a dose of a different poison: financial anxiety. In a 2014 survey conducted by the Student PIRGs, 65% of students said they didn’t buy a textbook because it was too expensive. And class materials have only become more expensive in the ensuing years.

This fall semester, textbooks for Advanced Japanese will cost me $230. The other three classes I’m signed up for have not posted their syllabi yet, but I expect similar costs. By not giving me advance notice, though, I’m missing out on the opportunity to shop around online to find cheaper options. And while I only need to take four courses per semester to graduate, some students might have five or six classes each semester, paying much more than me for materials.

At the beginning of every semester, every student faces a decision that could cost them anywhere from $100 to $800. Do you buy the books? Will the professor even use them? I have wasted $100 on a textbook before, only for my professor not to use it at all, or use it sparingly. Of course, I can’t get that money back. Even if I can sell it to someone else, it’s like a used car, instantly devalued as I steer it out of the bookstore. This $100 piece of trash forever litters my room, an overpriced paperweight that has lost even more value over time because of a new edition that came out the semester after my class ended.

The most frustrating thing now that we live in the digital era is that most of the information found in textbooks is also online. Some professors are keenly aware of this fact.

“You can use any resources at your disposal,” my biostatistics professor said before our midterm. “That includes the internet. That’s why I didn’t assign a textbook.”

As opposed to many professors — some of whom are getting paid for every book sold — this one acknowledged that textbooks are very expensive. He argued that in a professional setting no one will limit what resources you can access and a successful employee will find the most cost-effective resource to use.

Many professors who have recognized that textbooks are an unnecessary resource have stopped requiring them. So the textbook industry, looking to maintain its profits, now embeds within the books access codes ($40 — $50) you need to use to enter a portal for online homework. Clever. Although you can buy the code separately, most of the problems included in the online homework are based on the textbook, so the two are often sold shrink-wrapped together in a bundle. Canny students can get around this by working together and sharing a textbook. But at some schools, that could be considered an Honor Code violation. Talk about being between a rock and a hard place.

So what’s the alternative? For the second semester of my freshman year, I couldn’t afford all of my textbooks. I decided to wing it, and pretend like I had bought them. In class, if the professor asked me something, I would offer the most generic answer possible. Participation is usually a significant portion of my grade, so doing this immediately put my GPA in jeopardy. Outside class, I would have to wait until my friends finished their reading and ask to borrow their copies. I couldn’t really study by myself without a textbook. For someone like me who gets distracted easily, and struggles with group studying, not having a textbook is a huge hurdle.

I could’ve foregone a couple of meals and bought the textbook that semester. Some of my friends did — and I might have, if I ever thought I’d look at the book once the class ended. But the books for most electives end up like my General Biology textbook, which cost me $120, and I now use to prop up a desk I accidentally broke while moving.

I couldn’t even rent out the biology book, like so many other students do, because I needed the code inside to access my weekly homework. The same code also made it so that I couldn’t resell it to someone else, because whoever was buying it would need it too and I had already used it up. To add insult to injury, you can’t resell the code; those crafty publishers have made them single-use. But wait! It gets worse. A new edition came out the next year, so new students wouldn’t even be looking for the book I have. The positive side is that my desk has never looked better, even if it is a little crooked.

What can students do about this? Fortunately for us, a new wave of open textbooks is on the rise. They’re accessible, valuable resources. Unless open textbooks or some other innovation stem the rising cost of textbooks, students struggling to pay all their college costs will get a lower quality of education. Given all the time, money and effort put into getting into, and then graduating from college, we as a society should not set up students to fail.