Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Textbook windbaggage 

I hate to do this, since I know about half the editorial board of the Times on a first-name basis, but today's was a little too much for me to resist. After running an article Monday on textbook costs, the paper predictably ran an editorial lamenting high prices for stuff people buy. (Worth noting: People also lament low prices for stuff they sell. Ask a farmer.)

So what to do?

There is a national movement known as Make Textbooks Affordable. Among its efforts are working with student governments to do just that. Make Textbooks Affordable lists on its Web site about two dozen universities where student governments have passed resolutions supporting affordable textbooks.

As of Tuesday, no Minnesota schools were listed as either passing such a resolution or working to achieve that. Perhaps St. Cloud State University could become a leader of this effort in Minnesota. Such a resolution can send a strong message that students are serious about lowering costs.

So your information Monday about students using alternative sources for books online, or used books, or book exchange, or students sharing books -- none of those will send as strong a message as a resolution? I am sure McGraw-Hill is quivering in its boots right now.

Make Textbooks Affordable says it surveyed professors and 76 percent said that new editions were justified �half the time or less,� while two out of three said they used the bundled items �rarely or never.�

Such findings indicate there is plenty of potential momentum for changing market conditions. One thing professors can do immediately is let students know whether they need to have the latest edition of texts, or if used texts still provide adequate educational content.

This assumes that all faculty on campus don't give a flying fig about the cost of the textbooks they use. Maybe they could care more, but there's ample evidence that they are already trying to reduce costs. I get email from students asking about previous editions or the use of ancilliaries. My preference is for books that can be read online; they are usually cheaper, more current, and will link to the ancilliaries automatically. (I very rarely get complaints from students not having access to computers; five years ago, I would have.)

Lower costs by minimizing production expenses. Perhaps that means fewer pictures or no color in books.

In a foreign language primer, maybe. In a botany text, no. Colors help with graphs in economics books, though I agree in some cases people go overboard. (My monograph on Ukraine was held down in price -- even though it's still too bloody expensive -- by my reduction in the number of graphs, but more by my drawing them camera-ready myself.) The problem with this thinking is that the price is a function of cost, when the fact is that price is a function of demand and its inelasticity.

Give preference to paper or online supplements instead of producing entirely new editions, especially for introductory courses and subjects in which material does not change much.

Again, those are already out there. The biggest problem I have with them? They get lost in the student's dorm room or apartment because of their size. And students who aren't required to hit the online materials regularly (i.e., for grade) will pay for something and not use it, because after all it's mommy and daddy's money, or it's a loan that they don't think about for years to come.

Allow professors to select unbundled textbooks.

Most book companies already do. Most faculty have that option. If you had bothered to check the bookstore, you might have already seen that.

Granted, we are not saying textbooks should be cheap.
Of course you are. You are only recognizing that free is impossible.
They are an essential component and expense of every college education. However, they should be priced fairly.
So how would you describe fair? The Times board is arguing that prices can be whatever the Times board thinks a group of fair-minded individuals would decide them to be. That's a complete misunderstanding of market principles. Prices are not something that we design to turn out a certain, 'fair' way. While prices are the result of human action, they are still unplanned.