How Professors Help Rip Off Students

By Tim Wu

As the semester ends, instructors at universities and community colleges around the country will begin placing their orders for next year’s textbooks. But not all professors will pay enough attention to something that students complain about: the outlandish prices of the books we assign. Having grown at many times the rate of inflation, the cost of a leading economics book can be over $250; a law school casebook plus supplement can cost $277. Adding to such prices is the dubious trend of requiring students to obtain digital access codes, averaging $100, to complete homework assignments.

Professors love tough questions. Here’s one we need ask ourselves: Are we helping rip off our students?

A good instructor wants to use the best materials, and some of the expensive textbooks are excellent and arguably worth the price. But some really aren’t, especially when there are cheaper or free alternatives of equal quality out there. Basic ethics suggest we have a duty to look for cheaper options before we inflict the $200 or $300 books or the $100 access codes on our students. Professors who write successful textbooks need to think harder about the professional ethics of allowing a book to be sold at exploitative prices to young people.

The root problem is that it is just too easy for us, the professors, to spend other people’s money. Just like doctors who prescribe expensive medicine, we don’t feel the pain of buying a $211 book of uneven quality and no real use when the course is finished, or a digital access code that costs $100 and is designed at least in part to disable the used-book market. The fact that professors choose and students buy destroys whatever power a competitive market might have to keep prices lower. That, and a touch of greed — the author of one successful book has earned an estimated $42 million in royalties — is why textbook prices have increased over 1,000 percent since the 1970s.

For students, those $200 books add up to real money. The average student spends over $1,000 on textbooks each year; some spend more, and at state-subsidized community colleges, the prices of the textbooks can compare with tuition. As basic economics suggests, when prices rise, some people go without: students, often poorer students, try to get by without them.

For professors the path of least resistance is just to keep assigning the same book, in its latest edition. When prices were reasonable, that was a fine practice, but it is increasingly indefensible. There is sometimes substantial variation among textbook prices, and also books with stronger rental and used markets. In addition, important progress has been made by groups trying to create high quality alternatives. The Rice University-based nonprofit OpenSTAX has spent years developing high-quality, peer-reviewed textbooks that are free or cheap for more than 20 of the most popular college subjects. M.I.T. has an impressive collection of free online textbooks, and there are others. The publisher Cengage has been experimenting with a Netflix-style subscription model. At a minimum, instructors should at least take a look at what’s out there.

As authors, we have another role to play. Writing a good textbook takes enormous time and effort, and most textbooks yield neither great uptake or riches. Given those odds, might it be worth devoting the efforts into a book designed to be cheaper, or even free, as a form of public service? As for the authors whose textbooks do achieve success, what are the professional ethics of agreeing to price a textbook plus materials at over $300, or agreeing to some of the more dubious “access code” schemes?

Teaching is a profession with its own ethical duties; students are both our charges and a captive market. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with assigning an expensive book if it is really worth the money and the alternatives are inadequate. (It helps if there’s a good used or rental market). But we at least owe our students the time to make sure we aren’t just absent-mindedly ripping them off.

I long felt guilty teaching first-year criminal law out of a mediocre book that was both detested by my students and priced at $235. I gave up and switched to a free book from Harvard’s H2O project. It required work to switch, but it saved my students money and felt like a sweet liberation from a nasty racket.

Across the economy, over the last few years, there’s been a backlash against exploitative pricing, headlined by the condemnation of figures like Martin Shkreli of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Textbook authors and publishers may not be selling necessary medicines, but the practice of exploiting market power to its fullest raises similar ethical questions. The old-fashioned phrase is “price gouging,” and we shouldn’t be a part of it.

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