08/31/2015 12:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Textbooks Cost a Lot. Here's Why.

It's the start of the fall semester. Fee bills are paid, trips to Target and Wal-Mart are underway, and everyone is stocking up on school supplies.

At the same time, students are already taking to Twitter to worry about the impending bank-account-draining purchase of textbooks.


It's a pretty common thread that textbook prices are too high. At a time when student debt is higher than ever, it's crazy that we're charging students so much for textbooks. Just check out this blog introducing the era of the $400 textbook.

Even the CEO of McGraw-Hill took to HuffPost last month to decry high textbook prices. (He also calls debate around textbook prices "yesterday's conversation" -- and while I can think of a few MILLION students around the country for whom textbook prices are NOT "yesterday's conversation," I'm not going to get into that).

So why, do you ask, are textbook prices so high?

It's because the textbook market is a broken market -- and before I lose everyone except the economics majors, let me explain.

In a traditional market, two factors exert control over prices.
  • First, competition: if someone else enters the market, and offers the same product for less, it forces everyone's prices down.
  • Second, consumers: if the price of a good is too high, consumers won't buy it, forcing prices down.
In the textbook market, neither of those protections exist.
  • Just 5 publishers control more than 80% of the market, meaning they can effectively lock out any competitors that try to undercut them.
  • In the same vein, there's no consumer choice because the person who shells out the money (the student), isn't the one that actually chooses the product (the professor).

All in all, it means that traditional textbook publishers can raise prices, year in and year out, without any fear of market repercussion -- and they've done so for decades.

Used textbooks? Rental Programs? All great at saving students some money up front -- but they'll never actually solve the problem of high prices. That's because their price is ultimately determined by the cost of a new, print edition -- which as you know, has been increasing basically forever. The shift to digital books that publishers are so ardently pushing? All part of the same, broken system.

So, what to do about it?

Frankly, if we're ever going to break free from high prices, we need an alternative outside the traditional market.

That's where open textbooks come in. Open textbooks are faculty-written and peer-reviewed just like traditional books, only they're published under an open license. That means that instead of the publisher controlling who, what and how their material is used, the book is free and open to the public (and available in print for $10-40).

There are more than 180 open textbooks available right now. You can see some of the best here, at OpenStax (an open textbook publisher). Now, we just need faculty to switch from their class from traditional book to an open textbook. If every student in the U.S. had just ONE of their traditionally published books replaced with an open textbook each year, it would save students a billion dollars a year.

A billion dollars is a lot of money for just one textbook per student. With a billion dollars, you could buy the Oklahoma City Thunder NBA team TWICE. Or you could fund an entire trip around the moon.

It's time to put an end to high textbook prices.

Learn more and find out how to get involved on our website, here.