College Textbooks Are Way Too Expensive — And Textbook Companies Want to Make It Worse

Textbook companies are taking advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to make inroads into online course curricula — and they’re finding increasingly creative and controlling ways to extract full price for course materials from cash-strapped students.

As education becomes increasingly digitized, entire curricula are being outsourced to private companies. (Jeremy Papasso / Digital First Media / Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images)

The average American undergraduate spends $1,240 per year on textbooks, course materials, and other supplies. Students at public two-year universities spend more on average than students at private four-year universities, meaning that those with the least resources to begin with are hit the hardest by the expense. In 2020, 25 percent of students polled said they worked extra hours and 11 percent said they skipped meals to afford textbooks and materials.

There was a time not long ago when students could ease the burden of textbook costs by buying them used or, more recently, finding free PDF versions online. When a single textbook can cost hundreds of dollars, finding creative ways to cut down on textbook costs has been a financial necessity for students living in a country where total student loan debt is $1.75 trillion and counting.

With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating our move toward increasingly online education, hardcover texts are becoming relics of the past. You might expect that trend to actually help solve the problem, but instead, it’s having the opposite effect. As education becomes increasingly digitized, classrooms aren’t just being moved to Zoom or Blackboard — rather, entire curricula are being outsourced to private companies.

Companies like McGraw Hill, Macmillan Higher Education, Pearson, and Cengage deliver all the biggest buzzwords in sleek administrative speak — offering, for example, vague and foreboding products like “fully integrated, adaptive, digital course solutions.” They don’t just offer e-books but syllabi, homework, quizzes, videos, tests, exams, automatic grading, and more (and more!).

And they’re finding even more creative ways to secure their digital intellectual property and extract full price from students. The already not-so-halcyon days of scrounging up excessively highlighted used textbooks and free PDFs where possible are almost over.

The Neoliberalization of Higher Ed

As federal and state governments continue to cut funding for education, and as ever increasing percentages of college and university budgets go toward “admin” costs, the idea of streamlining and outsourcing course curricula to private companies becomes an attractive option.

For one thing, it is yet another way of removing human agency — and with it, skilled labor — from the school’s financial equation. Why pay professors, adjuncts, or graduate students to come up with syllabi and course materials or spend time grading when you could instead outsource this work to a private company, one that can easily generate all this material and replace all these labor hours and their attendant costs with a simple algorithm?

For another, it streamlines work and materials across the college and university system as a whole, thus enabling them to be more easily run like businesses, with simple and predictable ways of calculating risks, benefits, and outcomes of certain classes. What works and what doesn’t becomes a matter of algorithmically generated prediction — and any associated risks are no longer the responsibility of the university but instead opportunities for innovation in the private sphere.

It goes without saying that these corporations specializing in supplemental educational materials are raking in massive profits. While the impact of COVID-19 initially saw a slight decline in sales for publishers’ higher education divisions, these corporations’ rapid move toward integrated online materials has allowed them to easily bounce back — Pearson, for example, saw 32 percent growth in the third quarter of 2020, and Cengage saw 40 percent year-over-year growth in “online skills revenue.”

As schools increasingly rely on these companies’ services, buying used textbooks or using free PDFs is no longer an option, because you’re no longer just buying a textbook — you’re buying an entire “learning system.” And when your homework, quizzes, and tests (that is, your grades) are all tied up with this system, you have to buy it, at whatever price the company names.

Innovations in Scamming

This new system has massive financial consequences for students.

Let’s take, for example, Brunner & Suddarth’s Textbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing (14th Edition). A brand-new version of the book costs $172 from Wolters Kluwer. A used version of the same edition costs around $40, and any enterprising student could find a PDF online for free.

But the “digital course solution” of the text, offered by Wolters Kluwer imprint Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, costs $238. (I should know — I had to buy it.) If a student is taking five classes, that’s over $1,000 for a single semester. And with a mandated move toward outsourced online materials, that $1,000 is nonnegotiable. And the kicker? The link to access those materials, including the textbook you’re apparently paying for, “expires” in a matter of months, so you don’t even get to keep the book — or sell it so it might be of use to another student.

This scam has students across the country wondering, “What are we paying tuition for, exactly?” We’re ostensibly paying money to go to school and get an education, but that education is now being outsourced to a corporation that has nothing to do with the school itself. And the tuition money that should be spent on our education is obviously not going toward the expense of these online learning materials, since we have to pay for those out of pocket as well.

Paying money to go to public college is already an outrage, but paying additional thousands of dollars to a private company for “digital course solutions” is an atrocity. School should be free, and the materials you need in order to attend should be, too.

Correction: This article originally cited $1,240 as the average amount spent on textbooks and course materials, but this number includes other necessary supplies as well.

Share this article


Heather Rust is a nursing student in New York and a member of Democratic Socialists of America.

Filed Under