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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 01/18/2010

Willingham: Textbooks too much

By Valerie Strauss

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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By Valerie Strauss  | January 18, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  College Life, Daniel Willingham, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  Daniel Willingham  
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On the other hand, professors have either lost sight of or prefer to ignore the entire price package for higher ed. Tuition is in the stratosphere, yet there is no choice but to pay it. Then there are the student activities' fees under a variety of names for a variety of items. Cost of living may vary but at the colleges that insist students live on campus one, two (or four in the case of one university which threatens to reduce scholarship money) years, often more is paid for a year of room and board than a nice two bedroom apartment with a kitchen.

So we now arrive at the additional cost for textbooks. Most of us students in post-secondary and graduate education have resigned ourselves to the fact that textbooks are a necessary evil - an expensive learning necessity. There are no arguments on that front. But really? You are honestly using the same tired appeals to the sympathies of students and their parents with "Whoa is me, I lose money on used textbooks" falls on deaf ears. Honestly, when I have to shell out $750 a semester for books that I am unlikely to either a) use ever again or, b) be able to sell back, I can't say I care about professors' losses of royalties, especially since the tuition I had to borrow pays your salaries.

No, many, not all, professors really do try to save students' money when textbook updates merely involve a paragraph from a journal that could have been Xeroxed, distributed, and assigned as mandatory reading. I have been lucky enough to actually have some cost-conscious professors who either make their own supplemental material so the class did not have to spend an extra $50 for a supplement and another professor who told us he would continue to use the same textbook from Part I of a course for continuity and cost effectiveness.

Posted by: watchdog9 | January 18, 2010 12:11 PM | Report abuse

One answer -- Creative Commons and open licenses. See

Bypass the textbook publisher altogether and publish directly.

Posted by: demsrising | January 18, 2010 12:50 PM | Report abuse

I have trouble understanding the complaining. I remember paying $50-$60 per textbook back in 1982. So it looks like textbook prices have doubled in that time, like everything else.
One of the problems is the students themselves. They like having a nice fat book with a website, problems and solutions, and graphics. I can teach my students Java from a trade book that costs $35 just as easilly, but when I do, I get lots of gripes about the book. And if I try putting some of the readings on reserve (which is online so students don't have to trek to the library), no one ever reads the material. So what to do?

Posted by: bkmny | January 18, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

@watchdog9 "Woe is me" was not my point. My point is that we have a situation in which everyone is arguably acting rationally, but we have an outcome that no one likes.
@demsrising: thanks for the link. I hope this is the future of textbook publishing. I think it will have a much better shot at working once readers like Kindle are commonplace. There have been serious attempts at ebooks, spearheaded by publishing companies because they thought it might solve their used book problem. Students haven't liked them much, mostly because they don't like reading texts on screen. . .the better quality screen and navigation of the Kindle may solve that problem.
@bkmny: Yeah, the reserve issue is weird. I've put stuff on reserve and found the same thing. But some students do take advantage of it, definitely.

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | January 18, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

I have VERY vivid memories of being totally ripped off by the bookstores at the colleges I went to, back in the 70's. When one pays $50+ for a textbook and then at the end of the semester being "offered" the laughable sum of $10, I remember telling the smirking store employee that it was highway robbery and that they should be ashamed of themselves. Of course, they weren't.

Posted by: Alex511 | January 18, 2010 2:26 PM | Report abuse

Two years in school now, that is mean almost 10 text books and that is a huge budget out of my pocket. I have put up with it, because it is just a requirement and unfortunately, there are many of those books I did not use. The bottom line is just buy them new to help the writer at work. A little effort will be required on that.
Author of

Posted by: pierre1208 | January 18, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

Another reason for higher priced textbooks is that the publishers provide many other resources for students and professors. The psychology books that I adopt have marvelous web sites, which do not require the students to buy any codes/passwords. Students who buy used books can still use the sites. They have summaries, practice tests, and other features that I would have loved when I was a student. People think that stuff on the web is free (e.g., newspapers), but of course it takes money to create and maintain those sites. The publisher also provides test banks and PowerPoint slides to the faculty.

On the negative side, the textbook companies inundate me with exam copies of books. It is such a waste to give free books to every professor, in the hopes that he or she will use it instead of the current book. The companies also pay faculty to "review" a chapter or two. I get $75 to $200 to read a few chapters and answer some questions. Think of the dozens of faculty doing the same thing for each book. I believe that it's a way that the publishers expose faculty to the books. They have to pass those costs on in the prices.

Students, ask your faculty to put a book on reserve in your campus library. You can read it there and decide whether it is worth the cost to buy it.

Posted by: drl97 | January 19, 2010 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Just learned of National Social Sciences Press, which is trying to produce a series of low-cost digital textbooks. Example here:

Posted by: DanielTWillingham | January 19, 2010 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I worked for a textbook preparation firm, and frequently the "updates" are cosmetic only--changes in the design of the chapters, color of titles, etc. (Granted, the publishers have to do something to make money, but the students are being asked to shell out triple digits just so their book has red chapter titles instead of blue.)

And the Web sites are not universally popular; I can only managea dial-up connection, and I had real problems in a foreign language class last quarter doing the assignments that involved viewing a video or listening to an audio. And a lot of us thought the interactive games in which you shoot down the incorrect word were pretty juvenile. The textbook company also worked with an interactive program; when we reported to the publisher that the program wasn't compatible with out computers, we were told, "You're using an old version of Windows, and it will work just fine with the newest one." So now students must be able to afford not only need to upgrade the textbooks but the latest computer programs, too.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | January 19, 2010 1:19 PM | Report abuse

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