Opening Up the Discussion on Textbooks

Kenyon's Bookstore (via kenyon.edu).

Kenyon’s Bookstore (via kenyon.edu).

We love them, we hate them. Required textbooks are both a necessity and a burden at Kenyon, a reality that we have to face as students here. Textbooks have become a hot topic across the nation, as students and publishing companies face-off in a battle of the budgets. Kenyon is no exception to the ongoing struggle between publishers’ need to compete in a fierce market, which now includes electronic books and sales, and students’ growing reluctance to pay exorbitant fees for books they feel are unnecessary.

Trends in textbook sales from the Wall Street Journal.

Textbook trends from the Wall Street Journal (via wsj.com).

According to the Wall Street Journal, textbook prices, on average, have increased 6% a year for the last decade, three times greater than the rate of inflation. Several factors are involved in this trend, but a large part comes from debt-ridden students refusing to pay full-cost for new textbooks when there are cheaper, used
alternatives, or illegal scans available. The WSJ fails to mention students using the library as a resource, but the trend is clear: students are less willing to pay for textbooks.

Semester after semester, students shell out cash for books, grumbling about prices, and looking for alternatives to traditional purchasing.

Curious about the textbook habits and thoughts at Kenyon, I sent out a student-info email with a link to a one-question survey asking for peoples’ anonymous opinions on textbooks. After the course of two days, we received 52 responses to the survey. A break-up of the class year follows:

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Out of the 52 responses, most had some kind of a gear to grind with the process of buying textbooks at Kenyon, most citing price as their main criticism. Several students note that there is a definite price difference between departments, citing Psychology and Art History textbooks as being significantly more expensive than classes that typically use smaller, more popular books, such as English or History. Many students say they use Amazon, or other websites to either purchase or rent textbooks, rather than using Kenyon’s bookstore.

One concern several students have is with the seeming ignorance of professors to their students’ socioeconomic status, and the price of the textbooks they assign to their classes.

They’re too expensive, and many professors have “required” textbooks that don’t end up being used, costing students hundreds of dollars for nothing. It’s not a big deal for the professor, but most don’t realize that it is a big deal for a lot of students.

Students like this member of the class of 2018 cite the seeming waste when a professor requires an expensive textbook that barely gets used:

Additionally, Kenyon professors have a habit of not using expensive required texts to their full potential, even only using a single essay or chapter, which further steers me away from purchasing the overpriced books here.

Print books are not alone in the conversation: electronic textbooks are also cited as being over-priced, especially since they don’t require the physical resources of printed books, but are often the same, or higher-priced with no used option.

This member of the Class of 2018, along with other students, have been finding other ways of reading textbooks:

Can’t afford them.. I mooch off classmates, pirate online PDFs, check them out of the library, or read them in the bookstore without buying them.

Many students use the library–as well as Consort and Ohiolink–as a resource for getting textbooks:

I got all my textbooks from the library through Ohiolink or Consort this semester, but that can be problematic when it comes time to renew the books if one has been requested from another school. however, incurring fines for late books will still be a lot cheaper than buying them from anywhere, even amazon where they’re like 5 bucks.

Still, one student notes that course-reserve books are only available for two hours at a time, meaning that students are limited in what Olin can provide for them.

While most of the respondents try to steer away from purchasing full-price texts from the Bookstore, several are quick to defend the Kenyon Bookstore, citing its role as a fundraiser for scholarships:

I buy my books at the bookstore because their profits go into the Kenyon Scholarship Fund. If it weren’t for that fund, I wouldn’t be able to go here – and if I can contribute so that another student in the same situation can come to this awesome school, I’m going to do it.

Or more cynically:

I feel like when I buy a textbook from the bookstore, I am donating to the college so I won’t have to donate when I’m an alum.

Book buyback remains a contentious topic, as several students shared their displeasure with the system, as they rarely receive the same amount they paid for the books in the first place, or receive less due to other factors.

I get my books at the bookstore, and while I feel they are not usually overpriced when I buy them, I think it’s just terrible how little money I get back during the buybacks. I never write in my books and keep them in great condition, and I think it’s unfair to get the same amount of money back as someone who has marked and ripped their books up with pens and carelessness.

 

One student from the Class of 2015 offered an alternative for students who may have difficulties affording certain textbooks:

It would be great to have a pool-like system (if classes don’t change) for students who cannot afford to purchase books. Perhaps students would donate the books (or receive a little money for them) for a specific class and then people can apply and ask for books for certain classes. Hopefully after a while the store of books would be built up to the point where donations wouldn’t be as important. The students who borrow the books for the semester/year would return them at the end. It seems the library can kind of offer this through a search-and-scan kind of method of acquiring a text without buying it, but it seems many books aren’t available at Olin/Chalmers.

While the students who responded to the survey are hardly a representative sample, and most seemed to have a particular bone to pick with the system, these responses do serve as a reminder that Kenyon is in-line with bigger trends in the textbook industry. Students are unhappy with the system and are trying to find ways to get around or change it.

4 responses

  1. My books last semester would have cost more than $700 if I had bought them from the bookstore. DOES CAPITALISM BENEFIT ME? NO.

  2. I’d like to know just what percentage of bookstore profits from textbooks go into the Kenyon Scholarship fund. Also a possible solution would be if students sold books directly to each other – that way the selling student could get more money than at buybacks, and the buying student would still pay less than at the bookstore or most online booksellers.

  3. Thank you, The Thrill. This is a solid article and solid reporting that, in my opinion, is The Collegian worthy material too. Good job, Claire, I think we’d all like to see more material like this in addition to The Thrill’s usual comedic content.

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