Textbooks break the bank—and taxpayers’ backs

Marvin Wisely is a longtime Butte County resident.

You can buy several new books for $100, unless you’re at the Chico State book store, where one book can easily cost over $100. Since taxpayers buy books for low-income students, it’s not just the individual student who is being ridiculously overcharged—it’s all of us. At the community college level, books and supplies cost approximately 72 percent of what fees and tuition cost.

At the Associated Students Bookstore on the Chico State campus, an 11th-edition Intermediate Accounting book costs $153; a Micro Economics seventh edition costs $110. You could almost buy an encyclopedia for what textbook publishers charge for one semester’s books.

To help maintain the illusion that a $100 textbook is worth it, the book comes with a thick cover and very thick pages and weighs a lot. These books seem to be made to last about two years in a backpack and 100 years in the Neal Road dump.

If a textbook will be used in next semester’s class, store policy says it can be resold for 50 percent. If not, it’s worth between 0 and 20 percent—not because the next edition of the book is significantly better, but because the questions at the end of the chapter are different. Without this latest edition, the student can’t do the homework.

Isn’t the substance of the idea what’s important? Big expensive books can’t convey an idea any better than a soft cover book with thin pages. There are precious few new concepts introduced in most undergraduate classes that couldn’t be shown by just adding a few more pages to an existing book. Slip in a new set of homework problems and sell it for $29.95; there’s plenty of profit margin there.

For 15 years, I worked at Butte College assisting econ and accounting students. I have lifted a lot of textbooks. If you took a 15-year-old text in beginning econ or accounting and compared it to the current text, you’d find they are very much the same. But the cost to students and taxpayers buying all the textbook editions released in those 15 years adds up to a lot of money.

A man named Brewster Kahle has a van equipped with a satellite dish, computer, printer and a book-binder machine. He visits villages in Uganda, and lets children use the satellite connection to go on the Web and select a book in the public domain. To download, print and bind that child’s book costs about $1.

Textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation for the past two decades, according to the federal Government Accountability Office. To make students pay $153 for a rehashed next-edition textbook makes fools of us all. Excess profits for textbook publishers are hurting our colleges and our future.