An Inside Look at the Textbook Scam Sweeping College Campuses


There is no shortage of disturbing statistics about the cost of higher education today. Family incomes in the United States grew 147% between 1982 and 2007. The cost of college grew 440% during that same time period. Total student loan debt is now over $1 trillion — more than the value of Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, Zynga, Netflix, and Groupon combined. One in five recent college grads have jobs that don't require a college degree. One in six student-loan borrowers default on their loans, totaling $67 billion in defaulted student loans.

These statistics only scratch the surface of the disturbing state of higher education today. But there are some statistics so disturbing and outrageous that even those of us who have been in college or professional school for much of the past decade would be shocked. Textbook prices are one of those — textbook prices have increased by 812% since 1978, rising faster than health care, home prices, and inflation itself.

Jordan Weismann in The Atlantic discusses this rise and its underlying reasons. He points out that the exponentially increasing cost curve has similarities to health care — just like doctors prescribe prescriptions they'll never have to pay for, professors assign textbooks with no consideration for cost. Publishers have every incentive to cushion their sales with more profits, by packaging books with new and expensive software so students can't buy used textbooks. 

If you are frustrated by higher education's lack of accountability over price inflation and by the textbook industry charging you over $500 per semester, then prepare to become even angrier.

There are not many good reasons why you would pay hundreds of dollars each semester for textbooks. As internet resources and digital alternatives become more plentiful, it is increasingly easy to save thousands of dollars on your educational journey. 

One option is Boundless, a free service that provides something "better" than your assigned textbook. For baseline classes, e.g. basic economics, calculus, or biology, these e-textbooks aggregate all the basic information repeated in all typical textbooks for these intro-level classes. They are launching a premium option where you pay for instant recall quizzes for an entire subject. ABC News recommends, "The average, estimated, full-time undergraduate budget — including books and supplies, transportation and dorm expenses — totals $3,291... For intro classes, use the website Boundless.”

Another option is Chegg, where students can sell their textbooks, buy new or used textbooks, or rent e-textbooks at intervals ranging from 60 days to a full year. Google continues its quest to take over every aspect of our lives by partnering with Pearson, Wiley, Macmillian Higher Education, McGraw-Hill, and Cengage Learning to rent e-textbooks through the Google Play store.

While these other companies and sites attempt to erode the traditional textbook market, Rafter is attempting to upend the existing market altogether. Rafter is partnering with schools like Purdue, the University of Arizona, and North Carolina State to help campus bookstores compete with online marketplaces, by offering price-comparing tools and other facets to help make the supplementary costs of education more affordable.

Whether it is these new, innovative companies or "old-school" alternatives such as eBay and Amazon Marketplace, campus bookstores are slowly altering their policies. The new Barnes & Noble Vanderbilt bookstore offered more rental options for my law-school textbooks this semester. However, renting a new one from the bookstore was still often 40 to 50 dollars more expensive than buying a slightly used version on eBay or Amazon. 

Until more students realize the options that exist to make their education cheaper and professors begin accepting more non-traditional textbook options, traditional bookstores will continue to follow their favorite tradition — cheating students out of hundreds of dollars every semester.