What MN community college students learned about textbooks

Counting the ways

This is a piece of flip-chart paper tacked up on the wall of a session on textbook costs during a Bloomington leadership conference of the Minnesota State College Students Association.

Under the question, “How much did publishers rip you off?” students are supposed to indicate how much money they’d spent on textbooks this past semester.

As you can see, most are in the $300-500 range. (The national average is just under $600 a semester, I’m later told.)

Running the session is Rich Williams, higher-education advocate of the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. His program is called The Textbook Rebellion: How to Turn the Page on High Textbook Costs.

He asks for those who think they’re paying too much for textbooks to raise their hands. Practically everyone in the audience (30-40 people) does.

Williams talks about the ways that students can lower costs, and I’ve already covered a number of them. But his stats and bits of info are pretty interesting, so I’ve written some down, and I hope to get a copy of his PowerPoint presentation.

He’s really pushing open-source textbooks, saying they’d save students about 80 percent of textbook costs. If one in 500 professors adopted open textbooks, $2 million could be saved per year, he says

Here are some snippets on some other topics he hits on:

  • Cost. The cost of textbooks now equates to 26 percent of tuition at a 4-year public university and 72 percent of tuition at a community college.
  • Rising prices. The price of textbooks has been rising at about four times the rate of inflation.
  • No choice. Texts are expensive because of market failure. Because students have no real choice in the selection of textbooks, they can’t act as real consumers and thus influence demand.
  • Abuse. Publishers engage in abusive tactics such as withholding prices from professors, charging less for books overseas, and by creating custom books and bundles that sabotage their resale value. (Bundles, which often include a CD shrink-wrapped with the books, add about $30 to the price of a text.)
  • Student preferences. Sixty-six percent of students prefer to keep some of their texts, and 34% rent all of them. Interestingly, 75% prefer printed paper versions, and 25% prefer digital. Only 1-2 students at this session say they prefer digital versions.
  • Little competition. Four to five big publishers dominate the industry, which Williams calls a virtual monopoly.
  • Royalties. Professors generally can’t make royalties off the books they use in their own classes. (I assume he means the actual books that their students buy.)
  • Bookstores. Campus bookstores don’t actually make much money off texts. Their markup is actually quite low. They make their money off the apparel and used textbooks.

Online technology hasn’t seemed to help much, at least yet, in the eyes of one student.

Jennifer Schaefer, a 33-year-old medical lab tech student at Minnesota West Community & Technical College – Luverne saiys she was astounded that she had to pay $150 for a computer code to access materials for her online music class. And after a time that code expired, she says.

One student tells the audience he has stopped buying textbooks altogether — and still gets A’s by going to class and taking good notes.

But Columba Nwosu, a 50-year-old student at Ridgewater College, tells him: “You’re lucky.” And Williams says not every student is able to get away with that.

Nwosu later tells me he initially abandoned his attempt to go to college when he found out that textbooks for his 12-credit semester would run more than $650. He was working three $7-per-hour jobs and didn’t think he could make it with a wife and a child on the way.

He later went back and took classes without buying books, and though he did well, he says, it was a hell of a grind without texts. He later got a $1,000 scholarship, which covers some of the book costs. He’s now in his third semester.


  • John

    I agree with this wholeheartedly. It seems like every semester I’m spending $500 on books. One way I have partially avoided the madness is renting my books from eCampus.com. It has saved me hundreds so far. 

  • Susan Zdon

    I thought, in this program there was mention of a Minnesota start-up digital publisher
    or Media Tech. They had a price for strictly online or a $99.00 fee if you wanted to print the book off. Could you possible supply me with information on this company?