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Textbook Costs: Control Tactics And An Instructor’s View

January 10, 2007

The Chicago Tribune‘s Carolyn Bigda reported a few days ago on the ‘rising’ cost of college textbooks. If you’ve been associated in any way with college courses during the past ten years, then this is old news: the costs have already risen a great deal in that period. Bigda’s piece, however, contains a new angle in that it tries to speak to both students and instructors in an effort to control costs – to the former with buying tips, and the latter by discussing publisher practices. Here are some excerpts from her story:

– “The Government Accountability Office has estimated that the average first-time student at a four-year public university spent $898 on textbooks and supplies during the 2003-04 academic year. . . . A 2006 survey by the Illinois Board of Higher Education found that students at public universities spent, on average, between $735 and $891 annually, though that does not consider any money students receive from selling their books at the end of the semester.”
– “The Illinois board, for instance, is now exploring whether textbook rental programs at public universities–in which students rent rather than buy textbooks for a semester–would be cost effective.”
– “Other states considered or passed legislation last year. In many cases the laws exempt textbooks from sales tax, require publishers to sell books and accompanying compact discs that often are “bundled” together separately, or fully disclose a book’s price to professors.”
– “‘It’s a pretty common practice that sales reps don’t mention price at all to professors,’ said Dave Rosenfeld, the national program director for the Student Public Interest Research Groups.”
– “Here are ways [for students] to cut the costs:
** Talk to your professor. Before classes start, send your professors an e-mail, encouraging them to consider the cost of books selected for the course or to opt for cheaper versions. . . .
** If the reading list isn’t negotiable, ask for the syllabus as early as possible . . . [to] have a better chance of obtaining used copies. . . .
** Ask your professors whether an older edition of a book will suffice.
** Search far and wide online. It’s no mystery that you often can find new and used textbooks cheaper on sites such as, and But you may snag an even better deal if you shop at overseas versions of these sites, such as, where textbooks tend to be priced lower. Just be mindful of shipping costs and whether you can manage without a textbook while you wait to receive it. . . .
** Be sure you receive the correct edition, shop by the International Standard Book Number, or ISBN, a 10-digit number you’ll find inside each book.
** Check out school programs. . . . Some schools may keep copies of textbooks on reserve at the library or have textbook rental programs. . . . Students who rent books spend an average of $300 per year.”


In the field of history, some kind of overarching textbook is necessary in a general survey course: if survey, then textbook. At that level one unfortunately can’t use very many specialized books or primary resources, no matter their quality and readability, because of the general nature of information to be conveyed. And increasing the numbers of books also increases the cost to the student. An instructor can use some primary print resources, in book or other forms, but textbooks are a necessary aid in conveying the background and context. Instructors just can’t cover everything in the 45 hours of maximum classroom time given per semester (15 weeks X 3 hours per week sans finals week). That 45 also doesn’t account for in-term tests and quizzes, group film showings, and discussion time. Since textbooks are here to stay in history, cost control is clearly important.

While Bigda doesn’t explicitly argue this, the implication is that both instructors and students have to work to keep the system under control. I agree.

There are factors, however, for which Bigda doesn’t account. First is the rate at which publishers make older editions obsolete. Instructors often set up courses around textbooks, based on issues such as reading plans (for which page numbers are key) and the rate of chronological progress. If the instructor is too busy to rearrange his or her course every term – due to research concerns, adjunct status, travel time, etc. – then that instructor is likely to stick with the same textbook through at least one or two edition changes. Publishers, in my experience, make older editions obsolete about one year after the new edition is out. In sum, control of book edition is an important factor, but is generally out of the instructors hands.

While an adjunct instructor I had little time or inclination to concern myself with textbook costs. Plus, when I was first hired to teach two U.S. survey courses in fall 2002, the rate of pay at my particular institution was a horrendous $1550 per course per term – with no course construction fee or sick days allowed. At that “salary,” all I wanted to do was get in and get out – to do the minimum to fulfill the contract. It was only later that I learned that the textbook I selected, if purchased new, cost each student about $80-90. By last spring, of 2006, that cost had risen to $100 per book.

Another factor complicating textbook usage and costs, in my course at least, was that I strongly – nay emphatically – advocated marking one’s text. One could call this the ‘learning tool’ factor. I learned about book marking from Mortimer Adler’s How To Read A Book many years ago, and I’ve never once heard a student complain that marking did not help them read better. I would go so far as to argue that marking – underlining and writing – while reading raises the value of a reading by a factor of two for ~any~ type of work. The unfortunate part of my strong feelings on this is that the subsequent devaluing of the book by at least a factor of two come resale time. Students who are little committed my course are obviously reluctant to lose $100 come buy back time. This ‘learning tool’ factor caused me to eschew setting up a loan situation in the library. As far as I know, no textbook rental system has existed at any institution at which I’ve taught.

As for Bigda’s cost control tactics for students, I agree with most of them. From the instructor’s perspective, it’s annoying to get a syllable out early, but I never minded at least telling a student the book to be used.

In sum, the difficult task of controlling textbook costs fall to both students and instructors, but institutional/structural factors – in my view – make it more difficult for instructors to share the load. – TL

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  1. I always enjoyed dickering with book reps to get the cheapest possible package. They're pretty willing to toss in some extras if you give them an order of 30 or so, so I'd get a document reader, an historical atlas, and a guide to writing packaged with the text and an article reader in something that usually cost about 75-80 to the students (45-50 to the bookstore). Of course this more or less foreclosed used books, but as you mention, given the changing editions, the use of older books is mostly a forlorn hope anyhow. I'm of the opinion that keeping my class under $100 in this day and age was doing pretty well by my students, given that most of them (or their parents) were paying about $1500/course for the credits. Of course, at different institutions, that rubric might break down.

    In any case, I have tried to be sensitive to student costs, but there is only so much that one can do in this regard. If I was teaching as a full-time prof, I would likely employ more books in any case.


  2. CM: I never really gave myself the time to deal with book reps. I wish I could've, but the dissertation and other concerns (i.e. low adjunct pay) lowered my motivation. What's your position on actually using the textbook as a 'learning tool,' and not just as background reading? As I look back on all my history courses, too many instructors treated the textbook in a secondary fashion. – TL


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