Column: Bending the cost curve on college textbooks

Published May 31, 2013

Since 1978, the prices of educational supplies, primarily college textbooks, have increased a whopping 812 percent. This exceeds increases to medical services or new home prices in the same period.

College publishers have been the chief beneficiaries but others enjoy this gravy train, particularly bookstores that add a 30 percent surcharge and the used book market that drives publishers to churn out new editions every three years.

To add insult to injury, when academics publish their research and scholarship, many publishers, particularly Elsevier, then sell that content back to university libraries or charge students by the download.

America's colleges and universities have been complicit in this rip-off: By rewarding textbook authors with tenure, promotion and raises, higher education co-enables the publishing heavyweights (Pearson, Cengage, McGraw-Hill Higher Education, John Wiley & Sons, MacMillan) to extract millions of dollars from college students and their parents.

While increases in textbook prices may seem fairly innocuous, there's a grim underside to this story: When textbooks cost as much as the class, students may drop out. Or students may simply not buy the required textbooks, which is likely to hurt their grades and future employability.

In response to skyrocketing costs, some students, faculty and legislators are fighting back in several creative ways.

First, ubiquitous information is largely free to digital natives, even if they have to pirate the content or software.

Second, the state of California has committed to underwriting the development of 50 textbooks for common undergraduate courses. Eventually students worldwide will download these books for free via the California Digital Library.

Third, the Internet undermines textbook publishing by enabling faculty to publish their works for free online.

As an example, consider Writing Commons,, a derivative of a textbook I published with Longman/Pearson in 2003. Rather than publishing a second edition with a college press, I assumed the role of publisher by paying for the domain space and establishing an editorial board of distinguished scholars to peer-review submissions.

Writing Commons has helped thousands of students. During 2012, 167,651 people viewed Writing Commons, and 270,000 visited in the first three months of this year. Recently, several universities have adopted Writing Commons, including three composition courses funded by the Gates Foundation: Duke University's Achieving Expertise, the Ohio State University's Rhetorical Composing and the Georgia Institute of Technology's First Year Composition 2.0.

In contrast to my experience publishing traditional textbooks, Writing Commons feels more like an ongoing conversation — thanks to emails from readers and the ability to trace users' interactions with the resource in real time.

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Even so, self-publishing isn't a viable option for nontenured faculty. After all, the prestige of a major college publisher trumps self-publishing when tenure and promotion decisions are evaluated.

But anticipating the day when their textbooks are no longer so profitable, publishers are already revising their business models. Rather than books, they'll sell tools and services that are attached to the book's price. For example, Pearson's sells My CompLab and McGraw-Hill sells Connect Composition with English textbooks, which are tools faculty can use to evaluate students' writing. Services include technology training, licensure in secondary teaching, GED certification or even commenting on and grading students' work.

Armed with millions of dollars collected from students and nurtured by the academic reward system, publishers are developing sophisticated learning systems. In an information ecology of excess, they are redirecting their business models toward educational processes — such as constructing learning analytics to track student progress and facilitate retention or intelligent agents that learn from student error and independently pitch lessons at students' level of need.

Additionally, college publishers seek to benefit from the Common Core, the national assessment reform initiative. As textbook profits decrease, companies like Pearson perceive the Common Core initiative to be a wonderful opportunity to make major money off test design, preparation and testing.

So, can students and parents expect any relief from the ever-increasing costs of educational materials? Yes, they can, if universities reward open-education publishing and stop exporting their intellectual work and property, including textbook materials, academic articles and learning systems that are subsequently locked behind paywalls.

However, educational materials will continue to spiral ever higher so long as universities fail to revise their reward systems.

Joseph M. Moxley serves as a director of composition at the University of South Florida and publisher of Writing Commons, the open-education home for writers. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.