On top of tuition, housing and other college fees, Cal Poly estimates that students spend $1,599 on textbooks per year. For many students at Cal Poly that means about three textbooks every 10 weeks.

And the price may be going up. The two largest textbook publishers, Cengage and McGraw-Hill, announced their plan to merge in 2020.

“I think their intentions are to make more money,” U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) Higher Education Campaign Director Kaitlyn Vitez said. “They’ve shifted from putting out paper books and being publishers of content to software developers.”

Organizations such as PIRG have noticed the expensive rates of textbooks and are working to give students more reasonable and affordable options for their studies. Vitez works closely with issues that affect students, and one issue she is particularly passionate about is textbooks.               

Zach Donnenfield | Mustang News

According to Vitez, the reason why textbooks are so pricey is because of their publishers. Vitez said companies such as Cengage and McGraw-Hill have dominated and manipulated the market for decades, and there is no coincidence when it comes to their business tactics.

Publishers understand their customers are students and that they have found ways around high prices, such as borrowing textbooks or even illegally downloading them. To keep their margin of profit high, publishers have responded with new editions every year and non-refundable digital access codes to profit from, according to Vitez.

Cengage Vice President of Public & Media Relations Lindsay Stanley said the new company will offer U.S. college students more options for affordable textbooks, such as their unlimited textbook subscription service.

“The Cengage Unlimited textbook subscription already has 1 million subscribers in just 7 months of availability,” Stanley said. “College students have already saved $60 million this academic year.” 

Open textbooks

The future of textbooks is not the merge between the two leading textbook publishers, but a new concept known as open textbooks, Vitez said.

This cheaper alternative to commercial textbook publishers lets professors publish under open copyright, which lets them edit the content for their classroom. Students can then download the books for free or pay a low cost to have them printed.

Open textbooks are already a reality on multiple college campuses, such as the University of Connecticut and the University of Massachusetts — and, according to Vitez, they are a success.

“You shouldn’t have to pay to participate in classes,” Vitez said. “We are trying to break out of this cycle of dirty tricks by the publishers.”

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