A case for fairness in higher education textbook pricing in an age of technology.

GUEST COLUMN | by Mike Silagadze

The average U.S. college student will spend upwards of $1,200 on textbooks and supplies this year. That’s an exorbitant sum, the icing on the giant layer cake of their college expenses.

The average cost of tuition at American private colleges now stands at $35,000 per year, not to mention the cost of housing, food or other living expenses, right down to the rolls of quarters that go into laundromats.

Students are broke from the moment they walk into their first class of the semester.

The experience of buying their textbooks merely adds insult to injury.

That $1,200 might be worth spending if textbooks provided value for money, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks they do.

As contemporary knowledge products go, textbooks are heavy, cumbersome, un-engaging, and user-unfriendly.

Their search function—commonly known as an “index”—isn’t automated and lists only a small selection of searchable terms. They don’t transfer across platforms or link directly to their source materials.

And they quickly go out-of-date, becoming worthless, obsolete assets.

And yet, by charging $1,200 per student for a nearly-obsolete product platform—one that requires massive budgets and resource-intensive operations for marketing, freight, distribution and overhead, all for a product that could be easily transmitted wirelessly in zeroes and ones at a fraction of the cost—textbooks in this country add up to an $11 billion global industry.

These companies dominate publishing writ large: seven of the world’s 14 largest publishing houses are educational publishers.

They have kept themselves afloat by charging students, a financially vulnerable group that has for decades been captive to their business model, inflated prices.

Textbook costs have risen by 1,041 per cent since 1977, more than three times the rate of inflation.

It’s no wonder textbook prices are extortionate.

It’s the only way such poorly-run businesses could possibly hope to remain profitable.

Worst of all, they’ve built their business entirely on the backs of American students’ ever-growing $1.49 trillion in student debt.

The Response from Educators and Innovators

In response, educators and innovators have built a movement to expand the availability of open educational resources, or OER: textbooks and other course content that is fully digital, easily customizable, and available for free to students.

To make OER more easily accessible, they’re also creating marketplaces and platforms to help educators to find and share this content with each other, and then engage students with it in the classroom.

Organizations such as the Gates Foundation-funded OpenStax at Rice University, publish peer-reviewed, OER course materials that are available to students for free.

My company, Top Hat, also launched an online Marketplace for digital and interactive textbooks and course materials, where 90 per cent of the content is free and the premium textbooks are sold at a fraction of traditional publishing costs.

It’s a movement that is increasingly gaining steam: nearly half the country’s state legislatures have introduced bills calling for more affordable textbook options for college students. Some states offer grants to professors who create their own OER.

Textbook publishers have tried to capitalize on this by distributing free OER materials through their own online platforms.

But while the materials themselves are free, the platform is not.

In a desperate attempt to buttress their revenues, once again at student expense, the legacy publishers are putting free OER materials behind their paywalls.

Earlier this spring a group of key players in the OER community, led by the San Francisco-based Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), created what’s known as the CARE Framework.

Designed to guide responsible OER stewardship, it outlines how companies and institutions that benefit from OER can give back to the community to support greater access and sustainable growth in the open education ecosystem.  

The Future of Textbooks

The future of textbooks is not only digital, it’s one where sticker-price textbooks and free-of-charge OER materials co-exist in online marketplaces and compete for adoption on the basis of quality and value—all to better provide students with a lower-cost, technology-enhanced, quality college education.

Every organization with a stake in student education needs to commit to helping maintain the integrity of the OER movement.

Legacy publishers are no exception.

Mike Silagadze is co-founder and CEO of Top Hat.