College students and their families are rightly outraged about the bankrupting costs of textbooks that have nearly tripled since the 1980s, mainly because of marginally useful CD-ROMs and other supplements. A bill pending in Congress would require publishers to sell “unbundled” versions of the books — minus the pricey add-ons. Even more important, it would require publishers to reveal book prices in marketing material so that professors could choose less-expensive titles.
The bill is a good first step. But colleges and universities will need to embrace new methods of textbook development and distribution if they want to rein in runaway costs. That means using digital textbooks, which can often be presented online free of charge or in hard copies for as little as one-fifth the cost of traditional books. The digital books can also be easily customized and updated.
Right now, textbook publishers are calling the tune. They add as many bells and whistles as they can and pump out new editions as quickly as possible — as a way of making perfectly good textbooks obsolete. Not every book can be cheap. A specialized text that only a few people know how to write and that reaches a small audience will be costly by definition. But there is no reason for an introductory textbook to carry a price tag of, say, $140 in an area like economics where the information changes little from year to year.
Schools are beginning to balk at outrageous pricing. Rice University offers textbooks for some classes free online and charges a nominal fee for the printed version. A new company called Flat World Knowledge, based in Nyack, N.Y., plans to offer online textbooks free and hopes to make its profit by selling supplemental materials like study guides and hard copies printed on demand.
A study being carried out by the geographer Ronald Dorn at Arizona State University suggests that students who use free online textbooks perform as well academically as students who buy expensive copies from traditional publishers. Colleges and universities should take advantage of these new developments.
Cash-strapped students and their families need all the relief they can get.