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Why Are College Textbooks So Expensive?

by Van Thompson, studioD

Many students are shocked by the cost of textbooks, which can drive the cost of education up by hundreds or even thousands of dollars. The American Enterprise Institute reports that the cost of textbooks has risen 812 percent since 1978 -- much higher than the cost of education. The average college student pays about $655 each year on college textbooks, according to the National Association of College Stores in 2012, a slight decrease from $702 in 2008.

Academic Research

When students purchase a textbook, they're paying not only for the cost of printing and producing the book, but also for the information inside. Textbook authors are experts in their fields, and most textbooks have multiple authors. Students are paying for the work these experts put into the books, and the process of conducting and compiling research to ensure books are accurate and up to date can be pricey. "U.S. News and World Report" reports that about 77 percent of textbook costs go directly to the publisher to pay for such costs and ensure a profit.

Bookstore Costs

School bookstores can be costly to run. Bookstore owners must pay rent and utilities, cover the costs of store supplies and pay for employee salaries. About 21 percent of textbook prices go directly to bookstores, according to the National Association of College Stores. That is why online textbooks are often less expensive. Online retailers don't have to pay the costs of running a brick-and-mortar store, and "The Atlantic" points out that online retailers are giving college bookstores some competition.

New Editions

Professors frequently require that students buy the latest edition of a textbook. For a professor, this recommendation makes sense because it ensures that the book contains the latest research in the field. But for a student, this drives up the cost of books because it makes it harder to get used copies and ensures that the student is required to buy the most expensive version of the textbook.

Monopoly on Books

Students who don't buy a textbook may end up struggling in a class, and there's no option for an alternative to the required textbook. Textbook publishers know that students have to buy their books, so they have fewer concerns about keeping their prices competitive than publishers of other books. Similarly, college bookstores are the most accessible place for students to buy books they need, so these stores may not try to compete with lower online prices.

Additional Course Materials

Textbook manufacturers often add additional course materials, such as online tutorials, videos, workbooks and other supplements to their books. Even when a professor doesn't require a student to use these materials, a student is paying for the costly production of supplemental materials, which can increase the cost of an individual textbook.

Rising Costs

Although textbooks have always been expensive, their cost relative to the costs of education and the rate of inflation has risen steadily over the last several decades. "U.S. News and World Report" explains that several factors are at play. Textbook manufacturers are under increasing financial pressure, particularly as students buy used books -- which don't directly benefit the publishers. Competition from online retailers and copying of textbooks also drives the price up because less money makes its way to publishers. Unfortunately, students' attempts to save money on textbooks may be a major contributing factor to their rapidly increasing price.

About the Author

Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.

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