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The Price of Learning

Students Shouldn’t Have to Stress About the High Cost of Textbooks


Photo by John Vid on Unsplash


When pursuing an education in America, the costs are piled on and quickly become very expensive. Specifically for a college education, there are many pricey factors. Not only do students and families have to pay for tuition and housing, but also the hefty prices of textbooks needed for classes. The average college student spends between $628 and $1,471 annually for books and supplies as of the 2021-2022 academic year, which is too high a price for the essential material that students need for their classes.


College is already stressful enough, as it is a stepping stone to the rest of a student's life and career. Having to pay hundreds of dollars for textbooks should not be an added stress on students, as it puts many at a disadvantage and hinders their ability to learn.


At a college level, tuition is already exorbitant and that is often before adding housing and meals, or other “hidden” costs such as “lab fees”, graduation fees or even parking.  Adding on the high expenses of the necessary textbooks makes it difficult for students to afford. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, 25% of students said that they had to work extra hours to pay for their course material, 19% said that the prices of course material influenced their choice of classes to take and 11% reported that they skipped meals to help pay for textbooks. Textbooks are not only a tool and resource that are meant to be helpful to students, they are required in many of their classes,  yet their high price makes them inaccessible to many students, especially those from lower income backgrounds.


In college, students already have to balance their classes along with all the other costs that come with receiving an education. Students should be able to focus on their learning without stressing about their ability to afford the textbooks they need to learn. According to a 2018 Healthy Minds Survey, 35% of US college students reported their financial situation as “stressful.” The extremely costly prices of textbooks only add pressure on students who have to balance their classes, social lives and finances, therefore required textbooks should not be an added fee, rather something included with tuition.


Additionally, students who cannot afford to purchase textbooks are often put at an unfair disadvantage, because they do not have access to the materials they need to succeed in their classes and learn to the fullest extent. Many teachers and professors rely on textbooks for course content, homework and assignments. In order to keep up with the class, students turn to secondhand textbooks or unreliable online textbook PDFs which often cost money. Students that can’t afford the required course material will not be able to complete assignments and participate in class, thus leaving them at a disadvantage.


It may seem completely ridiculous to even charge for textbooks, some may argue that it is impossible to make them entirely free or even lower the prices. Textbooks are expensive to make and if companies do not charge for their books, the printing services would likely go out of business.


While printing costs seem like a good reason to price textbooks so high, in reality, there is evidence that suggests textbooks companies use a planned obsolescence strategy as a way to make more money. Planned obsolescence is a policy where companies design a product to lose quality faster, forcing consumers to replace the product and spend more money.  According to a 2022 study by Samuel T. Loch and Joshua D. Van Mater with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a decrease in revenue due to e-textbooks and rentals caused companies such as Cengage Learning and McGraw-Hill to produce textbooks that lose quality faster. They did this so that textbooks would lose resale value, forcing students to buy new ones. Yes, textbooks may cost money to print, but that is not the sole reason that companies charge so much. Textbooks are overpriced as a means of making more money.


“Companies such as Pearson and McGraw Hill charge so much for textbooks because they can,” Florida State University Dean's Postdoctoral Fellow Dr. Joseph Morgan said. “There are relatively few competitive publishing companies that can rival the giants, so these can set the prices at essentially whatever they feel that students (or their parents) will pay. This corresponds with the skyrocketing cost of tuition and board at colleges overall. To some extent this is a function of consistently high demand. The college degree is a sine qua non of the job market in the 21st century. As such, students (or their parents) are willing to directly pay or take out loans for tens of thousands of dollars in order to secure a place at a university, whether public or private."


Students should be worried about their educational growth, not about obtaining textbooks and draining their bank accounts.  Colleges should provide necessary course materials in a student’s tuition or have professors and teachers find ways to accommodate those who can’t purchase textbooks, such as offering notes or PDFs of the course content online.


“It isn't so much up to the professors to set the terms of access to textbooks as to the academic administrators,” Dr. Morgan said. “Professors who provide PDFs of readings that are not already made available through university libraries can be found in some cases to be in breach of copyright, although most do this anyway because we care about our students' finances. This is occasionally time-consuming, as courses which require extensive readings such as those in the humanities require corresponding amounts of time expended in scanning physical copies into PDFs, which cuts into the time budgeted for course preparation. Because expensive textbooks typically have digital versions these days, it should be the responsibility of university libraries to purchase institutional licenses to these materials to facilitate free student access.”


Money should never restrain students from getting the best education that they can, and so, textbooks should not be as expensive and inaccessible as they are. College is supposed to be about education, not stressing about the price of learning.

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