I recently came across a post by John Baez on the n-category cafe titled Cheaper Online Textbooks?. Baez’s post has a number of interesting links: a piece on “Affordable Higher Education” by CALPIRG, a piece on the legislation based on this report by Capital Campus News, an article in the Christan Science Monitor on the rising cost of textbooks, and a blog post in the Chronicle of Higher Education on an e-textbook program. So, reading about all these posts, I began to wonder: are textbooks getting too expensive? And should anything be “done” about it?
Are textbook prices soaring?
So I decided to look at the range of calculus books. The general impression from the things I read seemed to be that it would be hard to get a decent textbook for under $100. So, I went and typed calculus on Amazon, and looked at the first page of search results. Among these search results was Calculus for Dummies ($12.99), Forgotten Calculus ($11.53), Calculus Made Easy ($26.95), Schaum’s Outline of Calculus ($12.89), and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Calculus ($12.89). Most of these books would seem reasonable for a low-level introductory semester or two quarters in calculus — admittedly, they may not be suitable for all calculus courses, but if price really is a primary consideration, it isn’t as if there are no options. There is also a wikibook on Calculus and an old public domain book on calculus. If you want somewhat more advanced stuff for free, you can try MIT’s OpenCourseWare course on single variable course, which includes video lectures, their course on calculus with applications, and their course on multivariable calculus.
Okay, so perhaps calculus is a bad example? Well, I decided to pick point set topology. The standard book for this is the second edition of Munkres’ book, which I think is one of the best, and it costs $107.73 on Amazon. But searching for topology on Amazon gives a number of other considerably cheaper books, such as Mendelson ($7.88), Gamelin and Greene ($10.17), Springer Undergraduate Math Series book by Crossley ($23.40), Schaum’s Outline of General Topology ($12.89), among many others. None of them seem as good as Munkres, but they all cover the basic material — and reasonably well, it seems.
Of course, I have picked on calculus and topology, both topics that are more than fifty years old, and where most of the material that should be included in an elementary textbook is widely known. In other words, the field for writing books is wide open. No publisher or author has significant scarcity power. When we are looking at exotic topics such as the theory of locally finite groups, then yes, you probably wouldn’t find cheap textbooks. But most undergraduate-level textbooks would likely be of the level of calculus or topology texts, and not exotic texts on locally finite groups.
Why do instructors choose expensive textbooks when cheaper alternatives exist?
Why do instructors choose $100+ calculus textbooks or Munkres’ topology textbook when there are so many cheaper books available on the market? One explanation, pointed out in a comment to Baez’s post, is the “moral hazard” explanation. This states that instructors do not need to bear the costs of buying the textbooks, so they just prescribe the “best” textbook based on their personal criteria rather than taking the price into consideration.
This is a reasonable-sounding argument, and is possibly true in many situations, but is it possible that even taking the cost into consideration, a slightly better book worth $100 might be better than a slightly worse book worth $10? For instance, at the University of Chicago, where I am pursuing my graduate studies (and now teaching calculus to first-year undergraduate students) the University charges students around $3000 per course per quarter. This means that students are paying something in the range of $100 per lecture. Even if you believe that only 25% of the money charged by the university as tuition is charged for the actual education, that still comes to $25 per lecture. For a calculus textbook that will be used for three quarters (and hence, about 75 lectures), is a price difference of $100 versus $20 worth worrying about? And even at universities where students pay smaller out-of-pocket fees due to more direct taxpayer subsidies, the cost of textbooks doesn’t come to a very large fraction of the total costs borne by students plus taxpayers, and it becomes even smaller considering all the other ways that students “pay” by working.
So, when a point set topology instructor chooses Munkres over a cheaper textbook, the instructor may well be making a smart choice! This isn’t to say that there aren’t situations where the better textbooks are the cheaper ones. But the point here is that the cost difference may simply not be worth worrying about in the grander scheme of things.
Is it evil to bring out new editions?
Another point raised in the material that Baez refers to is that textbook publishers are being evil by regularly bringing out new editions of their work. Certainly, one rationale for bringing out new editions of calculus textbooks is that people keep buying textbooks and don’t simply use the used books in circulation, but there are other reasons to bring out new editions, such as correcting things that were wrong, improving exposition, and so on. Even in a subject like calculus, terminology and best teaching practices change with time, student and teacher needs change with time, and new editions help keep pace with these changes. If new editions were completely useless, why couldn’t everybody just make use of calculus books old enough to be in the public domain, such as this one on Wikisource?
And if there is so much concern about bringing out new editions, all a college needs to do is buy enough copies of the current edition to keep in circulation for several years, offer students special deals whereby they can “rent” books for a year instead of buying them. If you buy enough books for three years’ worth of students and half the students in each year use the “rent” option, then a given stockpile of books can last five years. If such strategies seem ludicrous to contemplate, it suggests that the evil of new editions may not feel that threatening.
Should legislators put price controls? And should textbook innovation be subsidized?
The Capital Campus News piece quoted by Baez says that a law passed in California state to control textbook prices lacks “teeth”. The piece sounds almost rueful about the fact that publishers cannot be stopped from bringing out new editions of their textbooks, since that would violate the First Amendment. While they don’t explicitly say so, they’re almost hinting as though this is a bad thing — an inconvenience. CALPIRG, which claims to “speak truth to power”, says that “Congress should require publishers to curb practices that drive up the cost of a college education.”
Let’s pass up here the issue that, in an issue of bargaining between two parties (students versus publishers) each with its own vested interests, one party is asking legislators to step in and tilt the tables in its favor. That kind of thing happens all the time in democracies. Let’s go instead to the question of whether price controls may be a good idea.
As Tyler Cowen says at the “Marginal Revolution” blog: “We know that textbook innovation saves lives and has a very high benefit to cost ratio. Thus, price controls or other restrictions that reduce prices are almost certainly a bad idea.”
What does this mean? The general idea is that price controls reduce the incentives for new entrants to enter the market. Those who are already writing and selling textbooks can handle the price controls — their profits may reduce, but they can still stay, but those who are thinking of whether to enter may choose not to stay put. Similarly, innovation into new kinds of product mixes might be drastically curtailed by price controls. (see also a similar argument against price controls on pharmaceuticals by Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution, and the video titled “Price Gouging:Myth or Fact” on John Stossel’s videos on ABC).
Some people are skeptical that price-based incentives can result in better, or cheaper, calculus instruction. For instance, this comment on Baez’s post seems to suggest that if calculus textbooks became free, people would be motivated to write calculus for the love of the subject rather than in order to make money. The comment doesn’t say what this will do to the quality of textbooks.
Also, some mathematicians seem enamored with the idea of free instruction, in the sense of copylefted material that students can freely use and recycle. As Baez says:
One way to tackle this problem is to develop free online textbooks. I think a wiki-based approach could be good. People are trying it. Will it ever catch on?
It might also make sense for the NSF, or other funding agencies, to pay for scholars to write free online textbooks — or improve existing ones.
He then optimistically points out to a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post on a program at the Universoty of Wisconsin at Oshkosh using a $300,000 grant from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education.
There’s definitely a possibility that such pilot projects, based on grants from the government or from private foundations, that aim to explicitly create freely available copylefted or remixable projects, will succeed. MIT OpenCourseWare has been pretty successful, though it doesn’t seem to have obviated the need for textbooks. Yale has also published open courses, and so have many other universities (see OCW consortium for more details). Independently, there have been various projects that aim to write “modules” — small units that can be fitted together into larger books and have Creative Commons licenses — the most prominent example of this being Connexions.
But while these are promising directions of investment, they’re probably not the only possible ones, and at this stage, it would be hard to predict what will catch on and to what extent new resources of this kind could replace textbooks. Besides, there are plenty of alternatives that may well be motivated by the lure of high prices. Some of these may start out even more expensive than textbooks, but may offer other features that textbooks don’t, and hence offer more value-for-money. Price caps could significantly deter investment into such tools.
For instance, Thinkwell, which was started over ten years ago, offers video textbooks. Their college calculus book includes 50+ hours of high-quality video instruction, with lecture transcripts, lecture notes, and practice exercises, and costs $140 + tax. This isn’t just video instruction in the sense of a person at the board — it is designed in a way that includes a lecturer writing stuff, side notes on what the important points covered so far are, and a useful presentation. It seems unlikely to me that this kind of investment into a “video textbook” would have occurred without the incentive to make money through selling online subscription — even though I’m sure there are non-financial motivators for them too.
The upshot? And broadsides
The upshot is that I don’t see any immediate and pressing reasons that the college textbook cost is a major issue or that politicians need to take action about it. Yes, there is a legitimate “moral hazard” argument, but the cost of college textbooks should probably be kept in perspective, and that perspective is the cost of college, both in terms of direct financial cost and the opportunity costs of attending college. Perhaps the appropriate standard against which to compare the rise in textbook costs is the rise in college costs, and not general inflation. It is rather ironical for colleges, that have been shamelessly raising fees well above inflation, and for faculty, who often make more money for every lecture they teach than the cost of a calculus textbook that lasts an entire year, to wax eloquent about the problems that students face because of rising college textbook costs. (For more on college costs, see this College Board report and this New York Times article on the report).
It’s always better for consumers to have things cheaper than to have them more expensive, so I’m all for cheaper books of the same quality or better books at the same price. But getting these is less about one group of vested interests trying to get support for their barganing position and more about encouraging innovation. And one way of at least not discouraging innovation is to not impose price controls and not try to determine the final shape or direction of things. And some of the innovations could drive average prices up, because they may be high-price-high-quality points on the price-quality spectrum.