CORE and the textbook racket

 27 October 2015

Last week, Professor Henry Farrell argued in the Washington Post that student textbooks are a “racket”:

College textbook publishers charge vast and extortionate amounts for their textbooks for one simple reason. They do it because they can. Students usually have to take a few required big courses for their major, and they have to buy the required textbooks for these courses.

In comments below the feature, one graduate student working as a teaching assistant explained how publishing company reps would visit the campus:

Part of that money students spend on their books goes to buying me… lunch and giving me free copies of new books.

Another commenter suggested that institutions should be responsible for providing coursebooks free of charge, as happens in schools.

Open access is a principle of CORE: our electronic textbook is free of charge to students. We asked our contributors their view on the cost of textbooks for other classes they teach.

Diane Coyle

Professor Diane Coyle of the University of Manchester is one of the authors of our forthcoming unit on intellectual property. In response to Farrell’s article, last week she tweeted a link to a student blog which shows how the cost of economics textbooks means that students look for scarce second-hand copies, old editions and often pirated versions.

She says that students should not be having to find additional money to buy coursebooks. “So much of the material is available free online now–including CORE of course–that there is less and less reason for setting a required textbook. If one is required, university libraries need to offer digital access under a suitable licence.”

Professor Juan Camilo Cárdenas lectures at the Universidad de Los Andes in Colombia, and is a co-author of our unit on Economics and the environment. He is helping us to deliver our free teacher resources, especially classroom economic games.

In Colombia, he says, if a student has to buy four or five textbooks per semester, the textbook cost of education each semester would be a month’s salary at minimum wage. “The main textbook for the introductory microeconomics course I teach costs about USD$50. The used books market is very thin. If a student has to buy four or five of these for her classes, we are talking about $200 a semester.”

Professor Arjun Jayadev

Professor Arjun Jayadev teaches CORE at UMass in Boston and also the new CORE course at Azim Premji University in Bangalore: “My students are not wealthy, so I would ideally give them something free, or at most something in the range of $20 or $30.”

But, as Farrell points out, Greg Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook, for a long time the standard text in university economics departments, “now costs a smidgeon under $300”.

Used and rented books are not much cheaper. John Schmitt, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and until recently research director at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, posted a tweet that caught our eye:


“Good god. Econ text book $348 new. $262 used. And even *renting* a used copy is $166!”

So how much can students actually afford? Professor Antonio Cabrales, who teaches CORE at UCL, told us that this may now be the wrong question to ask: “Of course they can ‘afford’ hundreds of dollars in books, if they can afford many thousands in fees. The point is that they do not need to pay those large amounts to have good textbooks. And fairly soon they will not have to.”

Students of CORE may be glad to know that this is one course where we give, not sell, them the material they need. And teachers, too. The cost of new textbooks does not just fall on the student: because we provide free support and resources to prospective teachers of CORE if they want to set a new syllabus, we aim to make it cheaper for institutions to adopt CORE, and for lecturers to design their lectures and tutorials.