Will Congress Make College Textbooks Free?

Due to skyrocketing costs, today’s students can barely afford their textbooks, let alone their tuition. Fortunately, relief may be in sight. In a bid to remove some of the financial burden from higher education, a pair of Democratic Senators has introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Illinois) and Sen. Al Franken (Minnesota) hope to revolutionize the textbook industry by turning to “open” textbook licensing. The idea is that the government would subsidize the hefty costs by licensing the textbooks directly from the publishing companies then offer them for free electronically or for a drastically reduced price in print.

If you’re not a student who has attended college in the past decade – or a parent who is financially supporting a student – you might not realize just how out-of-control the price of textbooks has become. The Senators’ legislation was motivated by Congress’s own findings: the average student spends $1,200 on textbooks annually. In the past decade alone, the price of these books has increased by 82%, inflation at its worse.

Two years ago, Care2’s Kristina Chew compiled even more textbook statistics that may help to drive the point home:

  • 70% of students skipped purchasing a required textbook because it was too expensive.
  • Nevertheless, it’s not a choice the students made lightly: 78% acknowledged that they knew they’d do worse in the course without the book.
  • 72% of a community college student’s expenses go toward textbooks; a lot of students who think they can afford classes are subsequently shocked and burdened by the out-of-pocket money necessary for required materials.

Some students have tried to recoup the money they spend on books by creating a secondary market. Since most students will never read the books again anyway, they offer their lightly used books at a reduced cost to students who similarly can’t afford the full price for new books.

Alas, textbook publishers are wise to the used book sales. To continue raking in profits, the companies will print new editions frequently in order to render perfectly good textbooks obsolete and tank their value in peer-to-peer markets. Often, textbooks will now come with “supplemental” materials like DVDs, which are easily lost by students, to also sabotage their chance at subsequent sales.

Inevitably, the Affordable College Textbook Act will face criticism from people asking whether the government should get into the textbook industry at all and to leave the cost up to the “free market.” However, textbooks have never been a great example of the free market anyway. Students have no “choice” in the matter – they can’t shop around and must purchase the exact books that their professors assign.

The United States Congress isn’t the first legislative body that has looked into “open” textbook programs. States like California, Maine, Washington, Florida and Utah have also explored the option of licensing or creating their own textbooks — specifically for K-12 students — in order to cut hundreds of millions from their education budgets.

If we truly do cherish affordable education and freedom of information in this country, licensing open textbooks is probably the right decision. While it’d be even better if the government could find a way to limit the cost of higher education altogether rather than putting people in a lifetime of debt, removing the financial burden of textbooks is certainly a good start.