Some classes had unique online codes associated with each book. These online codes gave you access to materials, workbooks, and assignments that were essential to doing well in the class. These books were mandatory to buy.
The other books were a toss up. They were nice to have, but they would often cost hundreds of dollars. Rentals always felt like a scam. Book rental prices were only slightly less than the brand new price. They also came with strict conditions of upkeep that would result in folks racking up incessant fees for regular wear & tear.
As a student this was an immense price. I scrounged around for old books from friends or saw if they were able to be checked out from the library. I tried to figure out any workaround to avoid paying for these books.
You only had a week to make a decision as assignments and tests were always right around the corner. Oftentimes I made the decision to just check out from the library. I always ended up paying so much in late fees that I might as well have bought the book in the first place.
According to NBC new’s review of Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, textbook prices have risen over three times the rate of inflation from January 1977 to June 2015, a 1,041 percent increase. Vox reports that Textbook costs increased 88 percent between 2006 and 2016, according to the same BLS report. The College Board suggests that students set aside $1,200 each year for books and other course materials, which can be an exorbitant amount of money for students who come from low-income backgrounds.
The amount of money students are expected to spend on course materials has rapidly outpaced the rate of inflation since the ’70s.
The history of college textbook publisher consolidation can be traced back to the early 20th century when the textbook industry began to take shape in the United States. During this time, a handful of textbook publishers dominated the market, with companies like Houghton Mifflin and McGraw-Hill leading the way.
As the industry grew, textbook publishers began to merge and acquire smaller companies to increase their market share. In the 1980s, Houghton Mifflin purchased Rand McNally, creating one of the largest textbook publishers in the world. In the 1980s and 1990s, McGraw-Hill acquired several textbook publishers, including the college textbook division of Random House. Pearson, another major player in the industry, acquired several publishers in the 1990s and 2000s, including the entire educational division of noted book publisher Simon & Schuster's.
The consolidation of the textbook industry continued into the 21st century, with several major mergers and acquisitions taking place. In 2015, Cengage Learning and McGraw-Hill Education announced plans to merge, but the merger was eventually called off in 2020 due to antitrust concerns.
Today, the college textbook industry is dominated by a few major players. Almost 80% of the textbook industry is dominated by five major publishing companies — Pearson Education, Scholastic, McGraw-Hill Education, Cengage Learning, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. These companies control a significant portion of the market and have a near-monopoly on the production and distribution of college textbooks.
The consolidation of the textbook industry has had a significant impact on the cost of textbooks. With fewer publishers in the market, there is less competition, which allows publishers to charge higher prices for their textbooks. Additionally, publishers often release new editions of textbooks every few years, which makes it difficult for students to purchase used textbooks or to resell their old ones.
There are tangible solutions being explored by education systems. In a historic win for community college students across California, Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 132 in 2021. This bill sets aside $115 million to make textbooks and other instructional materials more affordable to students who attend community colleges throughout the state.
According to reporting by CalMatters many community colleges already have some classes that use open educational resources, often marked in course catalogs as “zero textbook cost.” Yet those courses often fill up fast and students aren’t always aware they are being offered.
The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office is exploring ideas to make “zero textbook cost” the norm by funding community colleges to produce their own textbooks.
A 2023 Student Public Interest Research Group report found that every dollar invested in open educational resources saves students $10 to $20. One of the benefits of investing in open educational resources is the continued use of them after the initial investment.
While not the most glaring cost of a college education, book prices are yet another unnecessary burden put in the way of getting a quality education. Subsidized federal loans have a cap on how much can be taken. Students often have to take out more in personal loans to cover additional tuition costs, rent, groceries, and books. Students should be allowed to focus on their studies and not spend cycles hustling to get to the starting line of just having the relevant information.