Book savvy ain’t free: The rising prices of student textbooks

By Katie Bowden

There are many stories of desperation concerning the attainment of textbooks, ranging from being tagged as a shoplifter for going back and forth, trying to find the textbooks on the list that are affordable, to running an illegal library out of one’s locker.

The root of all these textbook problems is price. The cost of a 296-page novel and a 256-page textbook differ greatly at $9.87 and $72.93, respectively. Book publishers such as Mill City Press say this price differential has to do with the complex content of textbooks, but St. Kate’s Economics professor Kristine West, Ph. D, thinks otherwise.

“Their arguments are that ‘we have to pay these well-known [professors and scholars], we have to recoup that investment that they made, we also have a lot of online support that we provide (test banks and quizzes, etc.) and we have to keep up all that.’ But to be honest, the marginal cost per book is well below the amount that they’re charging, the marginal revenue that they’re bringing in,” West said. “So that’s definitely the line you’ll get from textbook manufacturers, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily the truth.”

West also mentions that professors do not have to pay for the textbooks that they assign to their students, and that price does not play as big a factor for the instructor as it does for the student.

Economics major Agnes Kabambi ’15 speaks on this issue as well, saying that there needs to be “a call on professors” to be more conscientious of cost when choosing a textbook for their course.

Caroline Ristola, a student at North Central University in Minneapolis, also speaks to the other side of the issue when it comes to selling back textbooks purchased from the campus bookstore.

“My school’s bookstore has a first come-first serve basis when it comes to selling back books,” Ristola said. “They have a certain quota that they only need for every class, so if you are the tenth person to sell back a book you’ll be getting less than someone who sold it earlier than you. Eventually they won’t accept some books and will ask for you to donate them. Otherwise, get used to getting as low as $3 [rebate] for a $20 textbook.”

West understands that there is a lucrative resale market among students.

“You could buy this book this semester and then just sell it to someone next semester and make a big chunk of your money back,” West said. “They’ll be happy because they save money; you’ll be happy because you recoup a lot. So the secondary market in textbooks is quite robust.”

West believes that this resale market is part of the reason why publishers continue to come out with new editions for textbooks that don’t necessarily need updates. Minor changes are implemented, and then the book is resold as “updated; new” and at a higher price in an attempt to tamp down the resale business.

Some students peruse the campus libraries for a textbook they can borrow and then renew indefinitely, given that no one else requests the textbook while it is out on loan. However, the St. Paul campus library says there is not a budget line for purchasing textbooks that St. Kate’s students could then rent out.

“However, we certainly purchase titles that are relevant to certain disciplines and fields of study,” said Kathi Rickert, Reference Librarian. “It may happen that instructors have also chosen these as their course texts.”

These texts are not available for indefinite loan, however, explains Sue Gray, Reference and Circulation Librarian.

“We put those books on course reserve, which has a 2 or 3 hour check-out period in the library,” Gray said. “This limited circulation period ensures that these books are accessible to all students.”

St. Kate’s St. Paul campus bookstore was asked about the pricing aspects of selling a textbook, but their answer is still pending.

Some student groups across the nation have attempted to help the situation by creating textbook affordability advocates. St. Kate’s student group Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG) is aware of the importance of the issue to college students.

“There have been campaigns proposed by statewide MPIRG to work on textbook affordability/online textbook access, particularly on the UM-Morris chapter,” said MPIRG member EJ La Valle ’15. “During our kick-off meetings, we divide into task forces and decide as a group what issues we want to address for the semester. It’s definitely something we care a lot about, but capacity is always an obstacle.”

The problem is far from fixed, but students have come up with some solutions of their own. St. Kate’s student Hannah Morgan bought only The Reflective Woman reader back when she was a first-year, and has purchased all of the rest of her textbooks outside of the campus bookstore.

Outside of that first semester, Morgan says “I will never buy books from the St. Kate’s bookstore, especially when I can get them online for $5 instead of $47!”

Katie can be reached at kobowden@stkate.edu.

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