Textbook Rentals: Symptom, Not Cause

The runaway cost of instructional materials is a worry, but it's not even close to the biggest problem for students, writes Jason Katzman.

June 20, 2018
 

The delivery of course materials is changing so rapidly that it’s difficult for those of us in the higher education space not to want to stop the ride and get off. In her article last week on the negative impact of textbook rentals, Sheila Liming seemed to be just such a person.

There are many days I would happily join her despite my 28 years in collegiate retailing. Every day there seems to be a new method for getting a student his or her learning materials. While I empathize with Liming’s concern about devaluing education and educational materials, I also believe she’s wrong about textbook rentals being the cause of some problem. Textbook rentals aren’t a cause. They’re a symptom.

It’s true that the cost of course materials is high and has been rising rapidly. Rentals are partially a result of resellers trying to bring those costs down and gain a market advantage.

Renting textbooks is also a result of increased competition and the commoditization of the textbook and of learning itself. Twenty years ago, a student bought a book, sold it back at the end of the semester and maybe received something close to half (although probably not) of what they had paid if the book was being used again the next semester. Of course, professors complained then that the buyback process devalued the educational experience by encouraging students to part with important materials they might need for another class or later in life as a reference. Then along came the internet and Amazon, and the model that traditional collegiate textbook retailers had been using for years was upended. For many stores, renting textbooks is a way to compete while remaining financially viable.

What strikes me about Liming’s perspective is that her campus store is owned by a private corporation called Follett, not by the University of North Dakota. This means that, at some point, her campus administration decided it was better for a private corporation to help students obtain their course materials. Let that sink in for a minute. The act of leasing bookstores is common -- an acknowledgment that selling and buying course materials is not an important role for a college or university. Why is anyone surprised that market forces are now determining how those materials are delivered while students are left to fend for themselves?

The very structure of most campuses has determined this result. That structure is something most faculty members are either woefully ignorant about or downright antagonistic toward (and that relationship goes both ways). Effectively, most campuses are divided into an academic side and a business side. In almost every case, the bookstore reports up through the business side and is required to generate revenue for the school. Every bookstore in the country that’s still owned and operated by its school knows that if it doesn’t generate revenue, the chances the administration decides to lease the store are high. If you work in an independent college bookstore in this country, you probably worry about your administration leasing your store every day.

The runaway costs of course materials is important, but it’s a distraction. Here at the University of Colorado Boulder, even in the most extreme case where a student is purchasing every piece of course material brand-new, textbooks are not more than about 3.75 percent of the cost of yearly tuition for an out-of-state student. We’re arguing about the cost of the tires on a Tesla.

The market and the publishers, not higher education, are determining how students get their course materials. Higher education abdicated that responsibility long ago. With the old way of doing things (selling $400 textbooks) broken beyond repair, publishers and bookstores are looking for any way to remain relevant and viable. Rentals are the result of market forces, promoted by sellers because of customer demand for lower prices. Inclusive access is the product of publishers and bookstores seeking relevance, trying to lower prices and, quite frankly, trying to eliminate competition in the market.

If the higher education community wants to spend large amounts of energy working on the high cost of course materials, they should. It’s important. However, we’re being shortsighted. In addition to course materials delivery, another model that’s broken is higher education itself. What happens when Amazon, or somebody else, finds a way to offer a bachelor’s degree for 75 percent of its current cost?

Bio

Jason Katzman is assistant director for academic resource support at the CU Book Store at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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