Why It’s So Hard to Lower the Cost of Textbooks

Jul 28, 2020

The entertainment industry has been shifting how it connects fans with music, movies and other media. Two decades ago, people purchased physical DVDs and CDs of their favorite films and albums, but today, fans increasingly use digital subscription services, like Netflix and Spotify, to access that material.

The college textbook publishing industry is trying to move in a similar direction. And it’s recruiting colleges to help by offering them a new kind of deal: Order digital course materials in bulk at a discounted rate, then pass the savings on to students, who are automatically billed for subscriptions to online versions of their textbooks.

These arrangements, often called “inclusive access” programs, tend to stir up controversy—and sometimes even lawsuits—when colleges adopt them. On this episode of the EdSurge Podcast, we examine why that is.

We discuss the changing economics of textbook publishing, analyze who benefits most from bulk book deals, and take a closer look at a new textbook subscription program at the University of California at Davis, hearing from both an excited administrator and a skeptical student.

Proponents of inclusive access argue that these deals help students in a few ways. They say these programs enable colleges to negotiate for rates on textbooks that are cheaper than the full retail price, which in turn saves students money. They theoretically help make sure all students have the assigned books from the first day of class.

And in some new textbook programs, like the one rolling out at the University of California at Davis, students will all be charged the same fee for their course materials, no matter what classes they take or their major.


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“It's basically a subscription program. So it has a flat rate price,” says Jason Lorgan, an executive director in student affairs at the university. “For example, we don't make a decision to charge different tuition rates for English majors or engineering majors, but we do charge engineering majors significantly more for their textbooks. And so this sort of equalizes that out.”

Skeptics question whether publishers truly are trying to lower costs for students, or just increase their revenues by making it harder for students to do their own shopping around on the secondary textbook market. They point out that few students pay the full retail price for textbooks anyway, because they use the internet to buy used copies or secure rentals, or they borrow assigned books for free from the library. And they don’t like that students are usually automatically enrolled in these programs unless they take the initiative to opt out.

“The more you look into this program, the red flags start coming up because, you know, you realize that very few students are going to benefit,” says Yu Cheng Wang, a sophomore at the University of California at Davis.

Listen to this week’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page.


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