The national conversation may have turned away from the cost of college, but for millions of families and students it’s something that is never too far out of mind. Scraping together the money for tuition, room, and board is hard enough. And it always seems that financial aid doesn’t go far enough, especially when it comes to books.
A 2011 survey of 1,905 undergraduate college students on 13 campuses performed by the non-partisan U.S. Public Interest Research Group (USPIRG), found that 70% of the respondents had not purchased a book at least once because the price was too high.
College Board estimates that textbook prices have risen 22% over the last five years to an average cost of $1,168 per academic year. The Government Accountability Office put the cost of textbook at roughly 25% the cost of tuition at a state university, and more than 70% the cost of tuition at a community college. It’s no secret that students often turn to the used textbook market to save money or to try and recapture some of the money they spent.
However, the USPIRG survey found that more than 80% of students were either unable to purchase a used textbook, or unable to sell a textbook, because of the oft-criticized practice of publishers putting out a new edition of a textbook every two to four years. The astronomical costs for textbooks, in some cases more than $200 per book, is nothing new to students.
Student Activists and Textbook Affordability
The Student Public Interest Research Group (SPIRG) has been working on the issue since 2003, but it has recently led some schools, publishers and lawmakers to begin thinking about alternatives to the traditional adoption and distribution method.
As Nicole Allen, SPIRG’s textbook advocate and director of the Make Textbooks Affordable Project, explains part of the problem with trying to reduce the cost of textbooks is the nature of the higher education textbook market. “It’s not like a normal market, where if something is too expensive you can go somewhere else, students are required to buy what a professor assigns,” said Allen.
She went on to say that because the vast majority of traditional not-for-profit colleges and universities, and many for-profit schools, give professors the freedom to choose which books they will use attempting to make a systemic change to reduce the cost of textbooks is very difficult. “Change really has to happen at a grass roots level, there are no real ways to force change from the top down,” said Allen.
When SPIRG first started working on textbook affordability the organization was primarily focused on ensuring that college and university campuses had programs in place—textbook rental or textbook reserve—designed to ameliorate the cost of textbooks. However, since 2007 Allen and her team have been working on raising awareness about open access textbooks.
Open access textbooks, and their sister program open education resources, are alternative publishing models that some advocates believe might be the silver bullet of textbook affordability. While the roots of the Open Access (OA) textbook movement can be traced back to online scholastic journals and peer-reviewed articles that were free of charge and free of most copyright restrictions; the ethos that informs the idea of allowing students legal access to textbooks without having to pay hundreds of dollars goes all the way back to the early days of the web and the open source software movement.
Unlike open source software, which allows users to legally make changes to software, OA textbooks and journals just allow users almost unrestricted access. Since their emergence in the late 2000s, OA textbooks have been steadily gaining ground in academia.
Allen stated that, when SPIRG launched an effort in 2008 to get faculty members to sign a letter of intent pledging to use an OA textbook in their courses if, and when, one was available the organization “received 3,000 signatures from professors all across the country.” She went on to say that SPIRG’s research found that the adoption of an OA textbook by a professor could save students up to 80% of the cost of a traditional textbook.
Moving Beyond the Textbook
OA textbook’s money saving potential is something Monica Metz-Wiseman is intimately familiar with. Metz-Wiseman, Coordinator of Electronic Collections for the University of South Florida (USF) Libraries, works with USF’s Textbook Affordability Project (TAP) and has been working to “get the faculty to eliminate the textbook.”
She explained that TAP is working with USF faculty to get them to think about course material in “a broader sense” than just a book and lecture notes. USF’s expansion of open access beyond textbooks, to all course material, encourages professors to rethink what an education resource can be, and allows faculty to upload a particularly relevant TED talk into Blackboard, the school’s Content Management System.
The integration of the coursework into the CMS allows students and faculty multi-platform access. Metz-Wiseman said that the increasing usage of the CMS by USF faculty has been a boon to the university’s students, many of whom are the first in their family to attend college and have to struggle to afford the cost of books every year.
“It was a shock when we realized that 28% of the cost of attending USF is textbooks,” said Metz-Wiseman. She went on to say that while she doesn’t support textbook piracy, she understands why it happens.
“Until publishers realize that the textbook industry is broken, piracy will continue, because students are angry,” said Metz-Wiseman.
Even though Metz-Wiseman is a university librarian, her efforts at increasing textbook affordability often run into the same issue that Allen and SPIRG’s efforts have faced, professor choice. A 2010 survey of USF faculty found that, while 78% of them were aware that the cost of textbooks was an issue for students, only 35% of the professors surveyed considered cost when selecting a book.
“There’s often a disconnect between the professors who say ‘this is a great textbook and I’m going to use it,’ and the students who have to pay for the book,” said Metz-Wiseman.
The Economics of Textbooks
The disconnect between the faculty and the students isn’t just metaphorical; it’s an inherent abnormality in the textbook marketplace. In a 2006 presentation to the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance—an independent, bipartisan committee appointed by Congress and the Secretary of Education to provide advice and counsel on student financial matters—James V. Koch, professor of Economics and President Emeritus of Old Dominion University, stated that the separation between the people choosing the product, professors, and the people paying for it, the students, contributes to price escalation.
Because students are a captive market, and their demand for books is almost unwaivering, textbook prices are, as economists say, “inelastic.” Koch’s research found that a 10% increase in the price of textbooks only results in a 2% decline in the number of books purchased. The lopsided power dynamics of the textbook industry led Koch to refer to it as a “broken market.”
Part of what broke the market was consolidation. At the start of the 1980s the textbook industry was dominated by nearly 30 publishers, by the end of the decade that number was down to less than 10. Today there are only four main textbook publishers, and they account for more than 80% of the market. The distribution of textbooks is no more competitive than the production—50% of all higher education institutions own their own campus bookstore. Another 35%-40% have contracted with one of four companies—Follett, Barnes and Noble, Nebraska, and College Bookstores of America—to manage the campus bookstore.
The market share dominance enjoyed by publishers was one of the factors that contributed to the cost of textbooks in the U.S. rising 184% between 1986 and 2004, according to the GAO, or triple the rate of domestic inflation. Comparatively, the cost of the international editions of U.S. produced textbooks remained relatively flat over the same period. The GAO found that the only way price discrepancies between the domestic editions and international editions could continue exist was if there are barriers to the mass importation of international texts that also serve to “insulate students from price differences in other countries.”
To keep the barriers in place many publishers have forced international retailers to adopt policies limiting the number, and number of copies, of international editions of U.S. produced textbooks that can re-enter the country, a process known in the industry as reimportation. Some publishers have even tried to enforce an outright ban on the practice.
The restrictive attitudes, and actions, publishers have adopted to protect their business model have led students and faculty across the country to look toward new, tech-based publishers who are willing to explore new business models to reduce the cost of textbooks and, possibly, revolutionize the textbook industry.
Start-Ups Try Shaking Things Up
“I think that, eventually, the big publishers will have to change the way they do business. And [open access textbooks] might be one of the tools to do it. It may take the death of one of those publishers, but it will change,” said Thomas Buus Madsen, chief operating officer of London based open access textbook publisher BookBoon.
In the world of open access textbooks BookBoon is a rarity. The company is a commercial for-profit entity in a field dominated by non-profits, and even among the commercial for-profits BookBoon’s business model—free ad supported textbooks—is a novelty. For some the phrase ‘ad supported textbook’—a phrase loaded with images of Coca-Cola commercials in calculus books—is an affront to centuries of academic tradition.
Buus Madsen explains that the reception of BookBoon’s texts, ads and all, has been very positive. The ads are customized to a particular school and are focused solely on employer branding for companies interested in hiring the students using that text. “It’s not like payday loans or McDonald’s,” said Buus Madsen.
Currently BookBoon texts have been adopted by professors at 500 universities and colleges in the U.S. and Canada—including UC Berkeley, Georgetown University, New York University, Columbia University, and Cornell University—and more than 1,500 universities in Northern Europe. However, the main interest in BookBoon’s free-to-download textbooks has come from the developing world.
Buss Madsen explained that more than 50% of the company’s 10 million downloads have come from countries like India and South Africa, which can pose problems when selling ads. He went on to say that while the company does do limited ad sales in emerging markets, BookBoon’s primary focus for advertising is the developed markets of North America and Northern Europe.
Like other OA publishers, Buss Madsen has no illusions that some faculty members and administrators are opposed to the idea of open access.
“We’re not expecting everyone to love us from day one. We’re hoping that students will love what we do and improve what we do,” said Buss Madsen. “And we will be able to increase our adoption rate.”
While BookBoon’s adoption rate is impressive for a company that has only been in business since 2005, it still lags behind industry leader Flat World Knowledge. According to Flat World CEO Jeff Shelstad, the company’s open access textbooks will be used in 3,500 classrooms in 44 countries this fall.
Part of Flat World’s success comes from the fact that they offer a unique approach to the text. The textbooks offered by the company are comparable in quality to a text offered by a traditional publisher, like McGraw-Hill or Houghton-Mifflin. However, professors who adopt Flat World books have the ability to interact with the text in a completely different way.
Since Flat World’s texts come with an open license agreement professors are able to make changes to the text after downloading. “They can add in content that they own the copyright to and can reorder the textbook’s sections,” said Shelstad.
Part of the open license agreement requires professors who make changes to the text, which creates what Flat World likes to call a derivative, to upload that new text to Flat World’s catalogue. The new derivative text, also called a Make It Your Own, is then offered along with the original text. By embracing interactivity, offering attribution, and protecting the authorship of the original text Flat World has found a way to move beyond the wiki model of content creation.
Textbooks and DRM
Like BookBoon, Flat World also offers free texts to students. However, Flat World generates revenue by selling both digital and print books and by offering an access code that allows students to interact with the text. While digital access codes are fairly common across academia, Flat World’s $34.95 price point and lack of digital rights management (DRM) software is not.Flat World’s “all access pass” provides students with an online book reader, the ability to download the book to a third party mobile device–like a Kindle or a NOOK, and a printable PDF version of the book. Even though Flat World doesn’t utilize DRM, Shelstad he understands why companies do.
“The notion of me, the student, being able to buy a file and share it with 100 of my friends terrifies traditional publishers,” said Shelstad. He went on to say that “file sharing is part of what we do.”
Buus Madsen stated that BookBoon, which is also DRM free, has not been seriously affected by DRM. “There are only a few of our titles that have been shared online, and that’s probably because it’s so easy to download,” said Buus Madsen.
For John Opper of the Florida Distance Learning Consortium’s (FLDC) Open Access Textbook Project, DRM and the way publishers implement it is a very real concern. The FLDC is using a U.S. Department of Education grant to create clearinghouse of open access textbooks and open education resources for Florida educators and as they review material FLDC staff consistently see traditional publishers including highly restrictive DRM software in the digital versions of their textbooks.
The DRM can range from limiting the amount of time students have access to the textbook file—typically for about 180 days—to requiring students to access the content through a dedicated, locked-down browser based application, or only allowing students to print out a certain number of pages at a time.
Opper said that, in his experience, anti-piracy attempts are only serving to frustrate students further.
“The problem is that in an attempt to prevent content from being shared or pirated, publishers are locking down feature sets and making the content less useful to students,” said Opper.
Follow Alex Wukman on Twitter @AlexWukmanCMN