OPED: Colleges must make textbooks more affordable

Commentary: Colleges must make textbooks more affordable

I teach at a large, public technical college that grants associate degrees in more than 100 occupational programs. I have never had a trust-fund baby in any of my classes. My students come from low- to modest-income households. And many are being saddled with a lifetime of student debt.

In the past decade, higher education costs have increased more than almost any other product or service. One factor driving this trend is the collusion between faculty, institutions and the textbook industry.

Today, it’s normal for students to pay hundreds of dollars for one textbook. To cut costs, students seek alternatives, such as buying used (sometimes outdated) books, renting books or taking courses without buying the books.

Because those student strategies don’t generate revenue for them, publishers often issue frequent revisions. Some fields of study change rapidly, making updates critical. In other fields, however, substantive change is slower but books are still regularly revised, making previous editions obsolete.

The explosive growth of online learning has been a godsend for publishers, which provide essential online content. This is usually included in the price of a new book. Students who buy used books must pay an additional access fee for required online content, and often end up paying as much as they would have to for a new book.

Further, publishers now provide a new level of services for faculty, such as customized content with matching syllabi and automated test-scoring. These rely heavily on online content that students must pay to access.

Some professors, especially those working at institutions that prioritize research over teaching, are pleased to pass the task of teaching to publishers, or to outsource their online course management to outside academics.

Institutions can further increase their reliance on adjunct instructors, who are dealing with their own debt and are desperate for work.

And online economies of scale are appealing to cash-strapped institutions. If professors are willing to set courses on autopilot, they have an incentive to pack students into larger online sections. Our great institutions of higher learning may become massive online course providers.

To be clear: online learning offers a range of benefits. Modern foreign language classes can provide television shows in slow language. Art classes can present clear images online rather than blurry slides in the lecture hall. Late-breaking developments can quickly be integrated. Students in the military can continue their educations.

But our duty as educators is to use online learning to the students’ best advantage. Our institutions of higher learning — including faculty, administration and boards of trustees — need to take control. The good news is that alternatives are emerging.

One publisher, Cengage Unlimited, now allows full access, for a single fee, to students who use that publisher’s material. This is an improvement, but it monopolizes the role of that publisher.

A better idea is for school to set a flat rate for all supporting material for courses, including textbooks and online content. Publishers can structure their products for reasonable return.

Schools may also require all sections of a course to use the same book. This is the standard at the college where I teach. If a faculty member objects to some publisher’s content or considers it incomplete, he or she can develop supplemental material for the course. We are paid to teach, after all.

Student loan debt has exceeded credit card debt for several years. We are the only developed nation that does this to our students. We must decide who will carry this burden, and strive to minimize it.