No Longer Free to Choose

The movement to regulate textbook prices could end up hurting instruction and saving little if any money, writes Michael W. Brandl.

February 2, 2007

The principle of freedom of choice is one of the most critical rights in American society. The Constitution guarantees us the right to choose our own religion. Representative democracy provides us the freedom to choose our elected leaders. In the marketplace we have the freedom to choose from a variety of goods and services.

The ability of individuals to make personal choices is of such importance to the functioning of our economic system that the late, great economist, Milton Friedman, entitled his widely read book Free To Choose. In it Freidman powerfully demonstrated that we, in the West, have the high standard of living we do, in great part due to freedom of choice. This same ability to choose -- to pick a campus, major and instructors that best meet our personal needs and aspirations -- has in large part, enabled our higher education system to become the best in the world.

Today in academe the core freedom for faculty to choose is under attack. It has long been argued that faculty members should have the ability to construct their own courses within a general framework so long as that course covered certain topics, and was done so with the proper amount of intellectual rigor. These standards were needed to ensure a certain level of conformity across sections, but they also allowed instructors to tailor courses to both their own teaching styles and abilities and the learning styles and capabilities of their students. When instructors have the freedom to tailor their courses, students will learn better and retain the material much longer.

This long tradition of choice is now besieged on campuses across the country by both "committees" and student activists. “Committees” are mandating the textbooks, instructional materials and learning aids instructors must use in their classes. In some cases faculty members are being forced to adopt older, perhaps even outdated, versions of textbooks in an attempt to “save students money” by making it possible for students to purchase used textbooks instead of new editions. Some students are demanding that they, not the faculty, determine what and how instructional materials will be used in the classroom. Some professors are taking the risky and misguided step of aligning with the two.

Upon examination, their argument falls on its face.

To begin with, if every student were to buy only used textbooks then no new textbooks would be sold. Thus, no new textbooks would be produced, rapidly diminishing the quality of education.

Second, one must consider why the market prices for new textbooks are increasing. Surprisingly, one of the major causes of higher priced new textbooks is the used textbook market. For example, if the fixed cost of producing a textbook is $500,000 and 5,000 units of the book are sold each year for 4 years then each textbook would bear $25 of the fixed cost.

However, if, due to the used textbook market, only the first 5,000 units are sold and, in each of the remaining three years these same 5,000 units are sold as used textbooks, then the publisher still has the $500,000 in fixed costs spread out over only 5,000 books. Thus each new textbook bears $100 of fixed costs, resulting in higher retail prices for all textbooks. This example demonstrates what has been happening in the textbook market over the past several years: As the used textbook market has expanded so have the market prices of new and used textbooks.

Consider how over the last several years the behavior of many faculty members and colleges has contributed to the fixed costs of publishers. On the positive side, faculty members are requiring more publisher produced instructional tools and technologies -- such as homework exercises, tutorials and supplemental learning materials -- to enhance their ability to educate their students. On the negative side, instructors and colleges are demanding more “freebies” from publishers, such as PowerPoint slides, computerized test banks, videos and class management programs. All of these items force up the price of textbooks.

There are no “freebies.” All of these things require expenditures that must be paid by someone. Most often these costs are passed on to the student in the form of higher prices at the bookstore.

Out with the new and in with the old is not a formula for success. New editions of textbooks carry with them new and improved knowledge and information. As time goes on, authors and publishers find better examples to illuminate and explain information and ways to integrate them with the latest technologies.

If the textbook “committees” and activists are really concerned about prices they will address the causes of the problem instead of limiting academic freedom. Used textbooks are not a cure-all and should not be treated as such. Faculty can be more timely and discerning with their adoptions, choosing only what they need and will use in their classrooms, and they should look more closely at the lower cost options being offered by publishers, like paperback and streamlined books and custom editions. Steps should also be taken to ban faculty members from selling sample or examination copies of textbooks they are given by publishers. The sale of samples, by faculty members or bookstores, is ethically wrong and contributes to the escalation of textbook prices.

The skill and commitment of faculty are the chief contributors to students’ educational success, I am happy to report. A parallel axiom is that textbooks and course materials are the second most important tools in the educational arsenal. If both maxims are true, then it only seems logical that faculty defend their right to choose the tools they will employ and that the debate shift back to quality of education and student success and away from requiring dated materials that drive up costs.


Michael W. Brandl is a senior lecturer at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin. He has written an ancillary work to a textbook, Glenn Hubbard's Money, the Financial System and the Economy, published by Addison-Wesley and is assisting Hubbard in the revision of that text.


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