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Dean Florez Headshot

Where Is the Netflix for College Textbooks?

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College textbooks cost too much.

It's been a huge problem for decades. A lingering thorn to students and their parent's every semester, regrettably chronicled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics which reports that the price of textbooks has risen more than 800 percent over the past 30 years, a rate faster than medical services (575 percent), new home prices (325 percent), and the consumer price index (250 percent).

It's ironic given we live in the "build an app era" that has solved everything from finding a dog sitter, adjusting the temperature in our house to discovering split-second deals on every service and product imaginable.

So where is the technology fix or app for skyrocketing textbooks? Where are the barbarians at the gate? Those Silicon Valley warriors that took down Motown, turned my neighborhood Borders into a laundromat, eliminated Kodak AND my camera?

Ironically, there has been no fight or square off with the four large textbook publishers that control 80 percent of the market nor an attempt to challenge the monetary hold they have on 20 million U.S. college students.

Textbook publishers today have college students paralyzed to a point they rarely buy all required textbooks according to the advocacy group U.S. Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). In a recently issued report entitled, "Fixing the Broken Textbook Market" they cite data that confirms 94 percent of the students reported not buying the required book and 65% of college students deciding against buying a textbook because it was too expensive.

PIRG proposes an "open textbook" solution that has been accelerated by 20 Million Minds Foundation founder Dr. Gary Michelson and his wife Alya Michelson's continued philanthropy. Their sponsored mission to disrupt higher education has multiplied among national policymakers who now advocate for more open educational resources and parallel PRIG's call for many more universal, generic low-cost "open-source" textbooks priced at less than $20 dollar. The uptake on this budding alternative has been exposing an unpalatable relationship between publisher's predatory sales forces and the only folks that could directly save student textbook dollars, our faculty.

Our faculty, seem to have refused to recognize their amassed power as the actual buyers of textbooks and have conceded control of their curriculum guardian status--empowered by academic freedom-- to drive down unconscionable textbook costs.

The moral obligation of choosing a $150 dollar textbook over a comparable $20 dollar book where the basic content hasn't changed much in the last 100 years is self-evident. Does McGraw Hill really own the periodic table? Does Pearson have a special and unique description of statistical regression?

So without internal champions, where are the outside disruptors, those tech warriors able to offer student's a contrasting distribution model that offers them an easy path to an affordable textbook?

Where is the Netflix for textbooks, offering students a desired "Book-of-the-Semester Club" available today for trade books or a $9.99 subscription service offered to them when they buy movies, videos, and music?

The four largest publishers just announced their insidious version of a subscription model. Coursemart, a digital arm of all four publishers, with textbooks three deep in most subjects, recently announced Subscription Pack. This service will now offer "qualifying" students a limited, set to expire in 150 days, choice of no more than 6 books for $200 dollars.

Is this REALLY the model for college textbook savings, or rather the model allowing increased publisher profits? Imagine any current trade book subscription startup asking their readers to pay $200 dollars every 150 days to access only 6 books, when today they ask $9.99 for over 100,000 books.

Or envision Netflix telling customers that will pay nearly $500 dollars per year to access only 12 movies or TV shows and after 3 months each will conclusively expire?

This is a call to arms. We need innovative tech warriors to push textbooks along the path of Netflix. To create innovative subscription models and offer a low cost "all-you-can-read" rate of no more than $9.99 per month available to all students without all the qualifications and disappearing content.

This approach is what education is all about. Heavy on sharing knowledge, it destroys the notion that educational information is proprietary and can be locked away in some pricy expiring eBook code.

The pioneering Netflix textbook subscription model I envision would support what student's already intuitively experience on their iPads and laptops, all filled with thousands of content choices from video, movies or music but purchased at a fraction of the cost. Why should textbooks be any different?

In the higher education sector, with 20 million college students required to purchase three to four textbooks per semester, there certainly is a market and potential large scale to entice inspired ed-tech entrepreneurs to delve into the uncompromising trenches of affordable textbooks.

My only request is that they drop anchor soon, armed with disruptive tools and primed for a long over-due tussle with the titans of the textbook publishing industry.