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The Cost(s) of Textbooks

Jordan Weissmann is right: college textbooks are outrageously expensive. We keep hearing that open-access textbooks are going to solve this problem but so far the numbers aren’t adding up even as hopes remain high.

For a teacher of literature like me, the cost of books is a little more complicated. we’re not likely to assign a single big text that costs $150, as often happens in the sciences, but the major anthologies (like the Nortons) tend to run over fifty bucks, which is not cheap. And if you assign a series of individual texts, your course can end up costing your students over $150 bucks each.

I remember how hard it was for me to afford my textbooks back in the day, so I keep these things in mind when I order books for my courses. For instance, when I teach Dante’s Divine Comedy, I’d prefer to use the wonderful translations by Robert and Jean Hollander — fine verse, excellent notes, the Italian original on facing pages. But the three volumes retail for $58 — and I would be assigning them in a course where the students have to buy seven or eight other books. But if I order instead The Portable Dante, featuring Mark Musa’s perfectly adequate translation with helpful, if not extensive, annotation, I can cut that cost by about two-thirds. (Discounts at places like Amazon, as you can see if you follow those links, are reasonably proportional to the retail prices.)

So I am always asking this question: How much quality am I willing to trade in order to procure more reasonably-priced books for my students? I am always surprised when I consider how much time I spend weighing these things, and I know many other teachers do the same. We cringe when we see those high prices; but we also know that sometimes saving money can be a false economy.

UPDATE: The redoubtable Gabriel Rossman, in the comments below, links to a post from his excellent blog in which he shows how some publishers don’t even list the prices of their textbooks:

Generally, the pattern is that when somebody else is paying you don’t care about the price. When I adopt a book for course adoption it’s my students who pay. Of course it’s almost inevitable that I’m going to be less price sensitive when choosing a book for course adoption than if I were buying 120 copies out of pocket. What amazes me is how brazen Sage is in not even putting the price in the catalog when my students are paying but doing so when I pay, a not so subtle hint that I should be completely indifferent to how much my students pay although obviously I’ll care when I pay. This is not unlike the critique of health insurance underlying HSAs: third party payment in medicine, as in textbooks, discourages price sensitivity and by extension leads to cost creep. This is sometimes taken to the extreme that doctors never quote patients the price of an MRI (or whatever it is they are referring/prescribing) and often can’t provide price information even if the patient asks. Even if the third party payment problem is intrinsic (I can hardly imagine the pedagogical nightmare of students choosing their own textbooks), we can at least hope for the people making allocation decisions to be responsible proxies. It doesn’t help when the sellers don’t even reveal the price and the proxies evidently don’t care that this information is absent.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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