Hello, visitors from Marginal Revolution! In your honor, time to pull out that draft post about textbook pricing and actually finish it.
The Chronicle recently ran an article on the possible rise of electronic textbooks. Having discussed the various ways students skirt buying new print textbooks (surely one of the most valuable skills — literally — I learned in college), it suggests the following.
Here’s the new plan: Colleges require students to pay a course-materials fee, which would be used to buy e-books for all of them (whatever text the professor recommends, just as in the old model).
And then goes on to claim “[college officials] say they felt compelled to act after seeing students drop out because they could not afford textbooks.” And much of the article goes on in this cost-control vein. In fact, it’s even titled “To Save Students Money, Colleges May Force a Switch to E-Textbooks” (emphasis mine).
Now, feel free to pick holes in my logic here, but this is what it looks like to me:
- Students get assessed a required textbook fee. As with tuition, there’s no way to dodge it.
- And as with tuition, it will then proceed to rise to whatever level the federal grant and student-loan markets, and disproportionately deep pockets of college families, support.
- Between rental (rather than ownership) models for electronic content and DRM, there will be no secondary market by which students can offset their textbook costs (bookstore buyback, used book sales online, trading with friends, etc.). Textbooks will no longer have to compete with older editions or printings of themselves, removing downward pressure on their costs.
- Except, of course, the downward pressure exerted by the universities themselves in their pricing negotiations. We have seen how awesomely well this works with university libraries and journal prices. Maybe if we’re extra-lucky we could have all the transparency of pricing that that market has, too.
Basically, this idea looks to me like the complete removal of any downward pressure on textbook prices, coupled with any number of incentives for them to rise essentially unboundedly (decoupling the purchaser from the source of funds, total lack of price transparency, external subsidy…). Leaving aside the rent vs. own issues and the DRM (on which Tim Spalding has written passionately), and the sketchy support for annotations and video in a lot of readers, and the risks of locking people into a particular reading device (as well as the giant rapacity that will be ereader vendors realizing they can capture entire campuses) — all of which are, mind you, important issues rife with bad ideas of their own — is there any way this is not, economically speaking, just a horrendous idea?