Willingham: Textbooks too much
My guest today is cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham, a professor at the University of Virginia whose research is focused on K-12 education.
By Daniel Willingham
The Spring semester at the University of Virginia begins this week, and I will be teaching some 350 students in a course called "Introduction to Cognitive Psychology."
The list price for the assigned textbook is $123.75. You can get my book, "Why Don’t Students Like School?" for about twenty bucks.
Why are college textbooks so overpriced?
Prices are not high because textbook companies gouge a captive audience. It’s true that students in my class are required to buy the book, but the high price more reflects the publisher’s effort to fight the used book market.
The internet has made the used book market remarkably efficient and I know its effects first hand, as a textbook author. When a new edition of my textbook was published (always in the fall) X copies would sell. In the spring, a *negative* number of copies would sell. That is, more copies would be returned from bookstores to the publisher than would be sold. The following fall, X/3 copies would sell, followed by negative sales in the Spring, and so on.
Indeed, I declined to update my textbook for a fourth edition even though the book was used at a fair number of schools, because I calculated that I would be compensated less than minimum wage for my time.
Students make the rational choice. Why pay 124 dollars for a new copy if a used copy can be had for 80? And at the end of the semester, they again make a rational choice: why keep a book they are unlikely to read again when they can get 40 dollars for it?
Textbook companies also behave rationally. They publish new editions as often as they can get away with it. They try to induce professors to adopt special “bundles” with workbooks, access to computer labs, and other disposable items so that students will have to buy the new bundle, rather than a used textbook.
Given the used book market, I doubt that publishers are making a killing on textbooks, but even if they are, what else can anyone expect? They are businesses accountable to their shareholders, not charities.
The used booksellers are also behaving rationally. Some observers have excoriated them as parasites, making a profit when they did nothing to produce the book. But of course they are not parasites. They are providing a service that people want.
I used to feel that if anyone was to blame, it was professors. Why, I asked myself, has a publishing JetBlue not emerged? Why doesn’t an entrepreneur publish a cognitive psychology textbook for $35? (All the competing books cost more than $100.)
My answer was simple: professors are insensitive to price because they don’t have to buy the book. Students do. Professors might say that they don’t want students to have to buy a pricey book, but at the end of the day, if they conclude that book #1 is better than book #2, they’ll adopt it, whatever the price.
And the enterprising JetBlue of publishers still would not have addressed the used book market problem. Aren’t the odds still high that a student will sell his book at the end of the semester even if he only gets $10 for it?
Then too, if I (or any professor) adopt the second-best or third-best book, perhaps I’m doing the students a disservice. My course (for which students pay, on average, better than $1,000 in tuition) must be aligned to the textbook. Should I really use a book I think is inferior and change my whole course to fit the inferior book, all in order to save the student fifty bucks? And the savings to students will be smaller once used copies are available.
This situation will likely change in the near future when ebooks take over the market and it is simpler for publishers to rent a text. Until then, a desirable change that will result in lower textbook prices is not obvious to me.
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| January 18, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories: College Life, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers | Tags: Daniel Willingham
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