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Textbook Price Gouging Should Encourage Higher Education Reform

Consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG is hopping mad about college textbooks. According to NBC, the group has found that college students are now substantially affected by textbook costs, sometimes resorting to extreme tactics like altering their course schedules to avoid classes with more expensive textbooks or deciding against purchasing a necessary book, threatening their grades and possibly hindering their college completion. With tuition costs soaring many college students feel they have less cushion to absorb rising textbook costs as well.

As a former college student I know firsthand the exorbitant costs charged by textbook companies. Like many, I am skeptical of the merit of endless new editions. Charging an arm and a leg for a brand-new textbook that has, at most, minor edits from last year's edition? Highway robbery! And, of course, it unfairly disadvantages poor students. When a professor says the latest edition is "not required" but has all of his or her class material linked only to the page numbers of the latest edition it puts lots of pressure on students who cannot afford the $200 price tag.

And professors who want students to buy their own textbook at a for-profit price? Don't get me started on the ethical implications.

We should not be surprised that the "publish or perish" culture of academia has led to a vicious cycle of textbook profiteering. Publish a new edition of your textbook every year, get kudos and profit for it, and pass it off as progress. As a high school teacher I'm using economics textbooks that were written in 2002 and we do all right. The material is still valid.

Colleges and universities should end their reinforcement on "publish or perish" academic culture and focus more on teaching. Public colleges and universities, after all, should not be seeking a profit. Why, therefore, do they tacitly reinforce profiteering by allowing courses to require overpriced textbooks, encourage professors to write overpriced textbooks, and sell overpriced textbooks in their campus book stores? It's a profit mill within, as many critics would claim, a profit mill that should be a genuine nonprofit.

I am not arguing against academic freedom. Professors should be allowed to require high-quality textbooks and should be allowed to write their own. They should not be allowed to tweak their existing textbooks, create new editions that contain minimal new material, and call that progress. They should be encouraged to find low-cost textbooks and learning material.

Just as doctors should seek cost-effective treatments, as is part of the modern version of the Hippocratic Oath, according to PBS, professors and academics should seek cost-effective learning. While individual professors may not be able to trim bloated college and university infrastructures, they can opt to use less-expensive texts. It's a small bit of reform, but even the smallest starts can have tremendous results.

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