THE BLOG
08/30/2013 04:05 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2013

Back to School, Back to Sky-High Textbook Prices

It's that time of year again. Students and families are packing up their cars and heading off in pursuit of higher education.

Here's some advice from a former college student: Visit the college bookstore before your parents leave.

Every college student knows what it's like to walk into the bookstore and see an outrageous $200 price tag on a required textbook. And every student knows what it's like at the end of the semester, when the resale value is mere pennies on the dollar.

Befriending someone that took your class last year probably won't help either. New editions are released every few years, rending past years' books defunct.

Meanwhile, prices continue to soar. Costs have increased at four times the rate of inflation over the past two decades. A textbook that would have cost a student $110 in 2002 now costs more than $200.

The root of the problem? Students are a captive market. Publishers can get away with outrageous prices because students need to buy whatever textbook they are assigned. And with a fresh batch of college students walking into this market every year, the outrageous growth in these prices are often left unseen. Even worse, just five large companies dominate the vast majority of the textbook market, so there is very little price competition and few affordable options to choose from.

Short-term methods to cut costs do exist (e.g., renting and e-textbooks), but they do little to tackle the driving forces behind high textbook costs.

And as USA Today recently highlighted, students are turning to some unpleasant solutions -- downloading unauthorized texts, copying their friends' books, or working through their class with no textbook at all -- just to avoid the huge cost.

A few years back, we helped pass a law requiring publishers to disclose the cost of their books directly to the professors assigning them. Now, professors are able to consider just how much their assigned book will cost students. That was a step in the right direction -- maybe even inspiring some professors to act -- but not a solution.

To really put an end to overpriced textbooks, we need colleges to embrace "open textbooks," which are books that are free online, inexpensive to share, and affordable to buy in print. These books are professionally written and peer-reviewed but published with a license that allows sharing, instead of the standard copyright protection that mainstream textbooks use. Open textbooks can save students 80 percent or more on the cost of their books.

Take John Stewart's "Calculus, 6th Edition," one of the nation's best selling math textbooks. It costs a massive $257.93. Now take "Calculus" by Gilbert Strang, a Rhodes Scholar and a current professor at MIT. As an open source textbook, Strang's "Calculus" costs a whopping $0.00, and it comes with a student study guide, an instructor's manual, and a video series to complement the book.

There are other examples: Robert Libby's "Financial Accounting" costs $148.48, while Joe Hoyle and C.J. Skender's "Financial Accounting" is available as an open source text for $0.00. For those who would question the book's quality, it should be known that Joe Hoyle was Viriginia Professor of the Year in 2007, named in the top 100 most influential members of the accounting profession in 2009, and has authored two other textbooks on the field. And his co-author, C.J. Skender, has received more than two dozen teaching awards throughout his career.

Open textbooks have the potential to save students hundreds of dollars every year without sacrificing quality -- perhaps even improving it.

We can stop textbook ripoffs by increasing access to and availability of open textbooks. We can put pressure on the publishing industry by raising awareness about alternatives. And we can keep encouraging professors to assign open source textbooks to their classes as well as publishing their own open source material.

If you're interested in learning more about open textbooks, or curious about what textbooks are available as open source material, the University of Minnesota operates an incredibly useful Open Academics textbook catalog.

Learn more about U.S. PIRG's Higher Education Project.