The college-text racket

Exorbitant book prices harm struggling students and thus the economy

The author, a graduate of Butte College and Chico State, worked at Butte College for 10 years and considers himself an education activist. Those interested in this topic may contact him at

I worked with all the accounting and economics textbooks being used at a college for 10 years. Every two or three years a new edition would come out. I have seen the 15th edition of a text. This new edition (often costing $200 or more) makes the old edition practically useless. The knowledge is almost the same, but the homework problems are different—and to pass the class you need to do the homework.

Undergraduate work in any field is mostly learning the language and basic concepts of that subject. One of the main goals of education is to promote “critical thinking skills.” Shouldn’t a student wonder why a 10th edition beginning chemistry/history/calculus textbook costs so much? Are we to believe that the author, who has a doctorate in the field, has really found nine new ways to explain the same basic concepts?

How many new ways can an economist find to explain why a demand curve slopes downward and a supply curve upward? Double-entry accounting is 500 years old. How many more new editions does the world need? Just because Pluto is no longer a planet, do we really need to throw away the whole astronomy textbook?

At $200, many textbooks cost about a $1 per page. If textbooks were three-ring binders, when a new insight from the author occurs, it would make sense to simply replace the needed pages. Sell a new set of homework questions for $10 and you’re good to go. This simple, grade-school solution could help struggling college students.

Since you can buy almost any first edition book at Barnes & Noble for under $50 and it is easy to find a 10th edition college textbook for $200, let’s suppose for a moment that textbooks are overpriced by at least $100. There are over 2 million college students. If each student bought five textbooks a year, then students are being overcharged by over $1 billion a year. Is it any wonder student debt is now greater than credit card debt?

A handful of college textbook publishers hire lobbyists to make “contributions” to politicians and things keep rolling. To me, it could be the biggest white-collar crime in America. The money we overcharge on textbooks means fewer students can afford college and that hurts all our futures. If we are truly counting on education for our future, then we need to be smarter in ways to help students today.