If you have ever wondered why market forces do not keep the prices of textbooks low, wonder no longer: National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” team just rebroadcast a story from 2014 that looks at the rising price of texts (it’s a 15-minute podcast). Guess what? It’s all the students’ faults! (You have to listen to find out why.)

OK. The faculty have a role. In the podcast, they discuss the economic term called  “the principle agent,” which is the idea that the person saying how much students need to spend is not the person spending the money. This creates an economic problem because it is usually easier for anyone to spend other people’s money! The theory basically says that if faculty ask you to buy something expensive, they will do it because it’s not their money being spent.

The podcast ignores a couple facts on the ground. Although we are the “principle agent,” we also know that you won’t buy what you think you can avoid (they gloss over this in the podcast). Also, Maryland, about five years ago, passed a textbook law that required faculty to learn the price of the books they were using (this used to be very, very hard, believe it or not). Legally, we are to justify the price of a text if it is significantly higher than a previous year. Until Amazon, chegg and half.com came along, there was no easy way for us to know how much a text cost until it arrived on the bookstore shelves. It sounds insane, but when I started teaching in the 1990s, I had no idea what a text would cost until I saw it on the shelves. Now, every professor I know checks online prices of texts. We can now make that decision: if the content of two books is equal, we go for price.

More importantly, we know that students won’t buy if they cannot justify the price. This forces us to make sure that we use the texts as much as possible so that the price is justified, and we look for the inexpensive option. I know it doesn’t always feel that way, but it is.

MC also offers many, many sections that use OERs: Open Educational Resources, that is, free texts and materials. Although this can solve many problems, it’s not always the perfect solution. There are many questions about access to the material (what technology works and is it available) and the quality and appropriateness of the material (it’s free, but is it worth it in this particular class) that need to be addressed before an OER can be adopted in a classroom.

–Steve Thurston

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