If the cynics are right, and college really is just one big racket, then textbook publishers must be laughing themselves to the bank.
Nearly everyone is in on the scam, even our own school, which self-publishes Intellectual Heritage texts that sell for about $30 a pop.
I spent my first year at Temple jumping through hoops to avoid buying an IH textbook.
Most of the readings came from Plato, the Bible, Locke, Blake and Darwin – the types of books that flood the shelves of cheap, used bookstores.
I naively assumed that my tattered, 99-cent copies of the Origin of Species and Blake’s poems would save me.
Unsurprisingly, the versions of the texts that Temple uses for IH are edited and abridged in a way that makes using cheaper, stand-alone books impossible (score one for the Temple IH department for charging $30 for books that are in the public domain.)
Math and science textbooks are hardly better, going for about $90 in the Temple bookstore.
While this may seem like an average price, think of it this way. Coffee-table books are expensive, ultra-high gloss, photo-filled books that are often given as gifts.
They are bigger than textbooks, printed on better paper and usually have spines that, unlike textbooks, do not fall apart by semester’s end.
Yet, strangely enough, most of these books cost about $50, significantly less than most hardcover textbooks.
Publishers try to justify the high cost of college textbooks by focusing on the amount of money paid to professors to write them.
If that was true, then most textbook authors would be living like mafia dons on expensive estates.
Let’s see, if 100,000 students buy a textbook at $80 – that’s $8 million.
When was the last time you heard about a millionaire author of a book on Kantian metaphysics?
Most of the money spent on textbooks is not going back to the professors.
Instead, it is going to the publishing companies and the book distributors, like Barnes & Noble, who operate the vast majority of U.S. college bookstores.
These people know that students are forced to buy textbooks, and they price them accordingly.
The used books at college bookstores are barely better.
They are usually priced at only 10 to 20 percent less than new textbooks.
That is why it is so refreshing to have used bookstores such as West Philadelphia’s A House of Our Own, or online sites such as Amazon.com or Half.com that sell used college textbooks for less than half the price of new books.
So, what happens when you find yourself in a class with a $90 textbook?
Don’t drop it.
And don’t sell out, buy the book and live off Ramen for the rest of the week.
Get some friends together and talk to the professor.
Chances are the professor will be just as disgusted with the price as you are, and maybe he’ll assign a cheaper textbook for the class.
Then one less book publisher would be ripping students off.
Ultimately, students and professors need to work together to find alternatives to overpriced textbooks.
With the average price of a textbook at about $75, this semester, many of us are wondering if we can get by on our notes alone.
Neal Ungerleider can be reached at N_terminal@yahoo.com