COLUMN: Asking 'Should I buy this textbook?' for the last time
As my undergraduate career comes to a merciful end, I was recently struck with the kind of obvious revelation that comes with reflecting on a journey while being in the middle of it: This is the final semester I have to buy textbooks.
Students are hit with a financial one-two punch at the start of each new term. Scraping enough to pay the cost of tuition and having to spend hundreds of dollars more on course materials makes the start of semester particularly stressful for those of us also contending with rent payments, obtaining mildly nutritious groceries and car loans.
In a recent conversation with some friends on the subject, I came to the conclusion that factors controlling prices in a traditional market don't really exist in the textbook industry.
Just five publishers control a large share of the market, meaning there is little opportunity for a new competitor to offer the same product for less. In alphabetical order they are: Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Macmillan Publishers, Penguin Random House and Simon and Schuster.
There is also no consumer choice, because professors are choosing textbooks for their courses, forcing students into a purchase regardless of price.
Traditional textbook publishers can raise prices each year without any fear of market repercussion.
Under the pressure of these forces, I often find myself scouring the depths of the Internet, trying to find the cheapest possible version of a book that will likely be skimmed over before each exam and then discarded when the course is concluded. Often I can find a more affordable alternative, however I'm also lucky enough to be pursuing a major that doesn't require large amounts of reading material.
I believe the common frustrations with increasing textbook prices are valid, and these concerns are worsened when professors assign a textbook that isn't worth the high price tag. I'm a pretty frugal guy; I don't even buy course materials until I'm sure it has educational value and will be frequently used in a course.
But "should I buy this book?" is a question that isn't always easy to answer.
I've had classes where information in the assigned textbook is never represented in exams. I've had classes where a new edition of a textbook is required, while unbeknownst to me, a virtually identical version existed for cents on the dollar. I've had classes where professors assigned their own sub-par books and others where students aren't required to read until the second-half of the semester.
I even had a class where the book was used for a one-page paper and never opened again.
For all of the horror stories, I've also had professors do their best to provide online resources, links to cheaper versions or meticulously digitize pages for their students.
I'm glad this will be the last time I have to suffer through it. Good luck to the rest of you.