This post has been paid for by Cal Poly Corporation’s University Store, and does not reflect the editorial coverage of Mustang News.
It’s the beginning of the school term and students rush into their new classrooms. After the professor welcomes them and explains the course objectives, the class syllabi are passed around, disclosing the required textbooks.
Students beeline through bookstores, textbooks out of stock — pandemonium ensues.
Therein lies the dilemma.
Textbook prices have increased by 1,041 percent in the last 40 years — more than three times the rate of inflation — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. While this doesn’t cover the cost of used or rented books, the rise in prices indicates a growing concern within the student community for affordable education.
Business administration sophomore Jennifer Ha said textbook prices are needlessly overpriced, especially when piled on top of tuition costs.
“Some books range from like $100-250,” Ha said. “With each quarter adding up to about four to five classes with books that expensive, we spend like $2,000 each year. Some kids can’t afford that when financial aid for them only covers the minimal of tuition and housing. It’s ridiculous.”
If Ha or any other student wants to point fingers, they can look to four major publishing companies, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, Cengage, and Wiley, who control the textbook market without other strong competitors. Publishers can drive up the prices through new print editions because college students are captive consumers.
According to the National Association of College Stores, approximately 77.4 cents of every dollar spent on textbooks goes to publishers, whereas roughly 12 cents of every dollar spent goes to authors. Every year, students spend on average $655 on school supplies.
Given the current state of the textbook industry, students from across the nation have taken to social media as forms of protest. They lament their struggle to find an affordable book, or a rental that can be delivered in time. Some question whether going the term without a textbook would suffice. Out of their complaints spawned the Twitter hashtag used to spearhead future campaigns: #textbookbroke.
Students’ rallying cries have not gone unnoticed.
On Oct. 8, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Al Franken (D-MN) introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act to the Senate. The bill would improve requirements for publishers to make all textbooks and supplemental materials available for sale individually instead of as a package, due to high bundle prices. Additionally, it would provide grants for universities to create online textbook versions freely accessible to all. The goal is to lower textbook prices through these open-source textbooks.
Nevertheless, students have already learned to be tech savvy as means to cope. Good Samaritans, fed up with the system, upload textbooks even if they are copyrighted, which are ready to be downloaded or “torrented.” Julia Oh, a human biology junior at the University of California, San Diego said students often find free digital versions of textbooks online instead of buying them in-store.
“They always have UCSD editions that are always copy-pasted from other textbooks and overcharge for them in the bookstore,” Oh said. “Some teachers don’t use textbooks, so not worth the couple hundred.”
Online services such as Chegg and Amazon have alleviated some of the financial strain on students, with offers like free shipping, flexible rental periods, and courtesy eTextbooks.
“When I (buy textbooks), I usually try Amazon first, or generally anywhere online because those prices tend to be cheaper that what the university bookstore offers.” Cal Poly journalism junior Katelyn Piziali said. “In the past, I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on textbooks.”
However, there’s always a risk of not receiving books on time, and returns can be difficult, pricey and inconvenient. Online retailers also don’t always provide accurate pricing information on textbooks, unlike campus bookstores, which are required to through the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
As a result, the Cal Poly University Store features an online textbook comparison tool, which allows students to see price options from all the popular online retailers.
And unlike Amazon or Chegg, Cal Poly’s University Store reinvests in the campus community. Cal Poly Corporation (which reports the University Store’s revenue) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, so once its costs and obligations are covered, funds generated by the Corporation are used to provide future financial and facility resources to benefit students such as Cal Poly business administration junior Sonia Sokolova.
“I have to cut costs and save up ahead of time to be able to afford textbooks each quarter,” Sokolova said. “If I didn’t do that, I’d be living off of Cup of Noodles for a while.”