Textbook Prices Are Out Of Control!

If you’re in high school, you may not be aware of this problem, since you don’t pay for your textbooks out of pocket. But your school does, and that’s reflected in your school budget, which is in turn reflected in our taxes.

If you are in undergraduate or graduate college, than you’ve felt the pain directly. Undergraduates typically pay $500 to $900 per semester for their books; considerably higher costs are not unheard of. Graduate students often pay even more. Many textbooks ring up at over $200; a few are priced over $1000! Some students pay more for books than they do for tuition.

Studies indicate that, over the past decade, textbook prices have risen at 2-4 times the rate of inflation. Now, this is a rant, and a call to action, so I don’t want to digress to a detailed discussion of economics. But sometimes the cost of goods and services outpaces inflation for good reasons. If something becomes scarce (supply decreases), or rises in demand, price increases will naturally follow. But there has been no great shortage of paper or ink (indeed, ebooks require neither), nor has there been a sharp upturn in the number of students. That leaves greed as the only remaining explanation.

Bookstand with large textbook

Now, publishers have rung in with several explanations for their price increases. For example, they point out that sales of 3rd and 4th editions drop significantly, owing to used book sales. However, these same publishers encourage authors to make significant changes in each new edition, so that professors won’t accept earlier ones for their courses. I think it’s safe to ignore the posturing of those who stand to profit at your expense.

To be clear, I am not maintaining that publishers and authors should not be properly compensated for their efforts. Textbook publishing is a niche market, and it is only natural that a textbook should cost more than say, a novel or a biography. However, a quick perusal of the top 20 bestsellers on Amazon revealed prices between $5 and $20. Textbook publishers and authors are no longer being well compensated; they are getting fat.

As a student (or parent) what can you do? First of all, you can look for used books, online stores, and ebooks as alternatives to buying new at the campus bookstore. If you buy used books, look them over thoroughly for markings and missing pages. Many college students have also resorted to using pirated ebooks. Hopefully, it need not come to that, but it’s getting harder to blame them.

A Picture of a eBook

A federal law that went into effect in 2010 has helped the situation. Colleges are now required to release textbook information as early as possible, and publishers are required to disclose the prices of their books. But that simply isn’t enough.

Back to Economics 101: Free-market capitalism (whatever you think of it) is based on the notion that competition will keep prices down. If one company raises the prices on light bulbs, customers will buy cheaper ones from someone else. But that doesn’t work if an enterprise is a monopoly (or near monopoly). So the government steps in and regulates monopolies, who would otherwise have free rein to overcharge their customers.

 

As in those monopoly situations, students in most classes must buy specific textbooks from specific companies. But legally, one can’t easily classify textbook publishers as monopolies, since there are several large ones. So we have an awful state of affairs – the publishers aren’t regulated, and they have a firm grip on your wallet.

 

Pickpocket Macro May 24, 20101

 

Therefore, the best thing you can do is MAKE SOME NOISE, by signing petitions (here’s a link to Textbook Rebellion), or writing to your congressmen. In America’s current economic atmosphere, a politician who spearheads an effort to regulate textbook sales should be extremely popular.

Who knows – perhaps one of you will create a website with a catchy title like “Occupy College Street,” get rich, and fund a charity for needy students.

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SAT Tutoring and Morality

To begin with, let me reiterate that I have run an SAT prep company for 23 years.  Obviously, I believe that taking an SAT course is beneficial, but I’m sure I have some bias.  However, since SAT prep is such a big business, I think it’s reasonable to assume that most people agree that it’s helpful.

I discovered many years ago that, not only is private SAT tutoring more effective than group instruction; it is vastly so.  I found that score increases for my private students dwarfed those of group students, and I have offered only private tutoring since.  Of course, making that decision also meant that I’ve made less money than I would have.

So I chose quality over profit. How altruistic of me! But hold on.  Private tutoring is more expensive for the student, even if the teacher earns less per hour.  And that means that only families that can afford private tutoring have access to the largest score increases. Is that unfair?

 

Money!

Image by yomanimus via Flickr

 

My best answer is: sort of. I’ve thought about this issue for a long time, and there are all sorts of easy rationalizations that can cloud one’s thinking. “I’m helping students. I can’t spend my time thinking of those I can’t help.”  “That’s how the world works.” And there’s always “if I don’t do it, someone else will.”

But it isn’t hard to find the fallacies in any of those statements. So let’s look a little deeper.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with SAT prep per se. When SAT teaching as a business took off in the 1980’s, there was plenty of backlash.  Part of that negativity arose from The College Board/ETS’s long-standing claim that the SAT couldn’t be taught. When change is afoot, complaints are never far behind. But clearly the SAT can be taught, just as the MCAT, LSAT, or GMAT can, and you don’t hear a lot of complaining about prep courses for those tests. But in those days, a lot of students simply lacked access to effective SAT courses, and they found themselves at a disadvantage.

Today, a student can easily find an SAT course, regardless of where he lives.  Online courses are an option. Some students rely only on prep books.  Very few go in “cold.” So I think we can put “prep is evil” thinking to bed. If everyone has access, and it’s effective, what could be wrong?

No – the question isn’t whether SAT teaching is unethical; it’s whether more effective, expensive teaching is. And that’s exactly what I’ve been offering for over two decades. To be sure, not every student we’ve taught has made a mammoth score increase. But our average increase is much larger than that of other SAT teachers in the area (brag, brag!), and it is easy to argue that we’re merely giving an advantage to those who have the bucks to spend.

As I’ve already mentioned, I don’t have a definitive, self-serving answer to this question. I am motivated by offering the highest quality education that I can, and I have employed a half-baked solution to this moral dilemma.  Yes – our tutoring costs more than most SAT classrooms. But we also charge a lot less than many other private tutors do. That makes our course available to the middle class, even if it’s more of a burden that a group program would be.

It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s the best I’ve come up with. Thoughts?

Unfair Test?

This post is going to be one of my rants, and a geeky one at that, so if you’re looking for SAT tips, please be patient and wait for another article.

The College Board recently announced that SAT scores dropped (again), and numerous articles have appeared on the Web and in print.  The one that caught my eye was in Newsday, and it ironically appeared next to a photo of a just-launched long-distance rocket.  “Shouldn’t that rocket be crashing?” I wondered, until I realized that the photo belonged to an article about NASA’s new rocket.

Anyhow, after the usual moaning and hand-wringing about students’ lack of preparedness for success in college, I came across this:

Anti-testing advocates seized upon the latest dip in SAT scores as further evidence that schools have spent too much class time prepping for standardized exams and not enough time on instruction.

 “We feel that schooling on average has been dumbed down by a fixation on testing,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, a Massachusetts-based advocacy group.

First, let me make clear that I like FairTest.  As their name implies, they put pressure on private and public institutions who administer the bevy of tests that permeate our lives, in the interest of keeping them fair.

But hold on!  If the scores went down, how exactly does one conclude that the problem is that students spent too much time studying for them?  If students ignore their subjects and study for the SAT’s too much, shouldn’t they be acing the SAT’s and then flunking out of college?  Methinks that FairTest would have complained just as much if the scores went up.

What exactly does the dip in scores mean?  Are we becoming a nation of illiterates (Reading scores dropped the most)?  The drop in scores from last year was 4 points out of 1800 (scores range from 600 to 2400 for the three sections combined).  Is a 4-point drop meaningful?  The scores for each section are multiples of 10 – you can score 560 or 570, but nothing in between.

4 points might seem like a measly difference, but I’m willing to concede that it means something, if for no other reason than the scores have dropped steadily for several years.  But does that really mean we’re getting dumber?  Is there lead in my favorite breakfast cereal?

I think it’s hard to conclude just what is responsible for the dip.  It has been suggested that more below-average students are taking the SAT’s than did in earlier years.  Another theory is that more students for whom English is their second language are pulling the scores down.  Perhaps there are other factors.

I believe we should look for positive strategies, rather than expending our time finger-pointing and overanalyzing.  Tests are a necessary part of the educational process, and that means we have to spend time studying them.  Sure, we shouldn’t overdo it.  But as parents and students, we should recognize that we must adapt to a changing world.  Reading used to be considered fun; now it’s geeky.  And students can’t be expected to give up XBox and FaceBook.  But students must also realize how easy these and other modern distractions make it to neglect activities that are vital to their future.  And parents must be vigilant in reminding their teenagers of this, and taking an active role overseeing their childrens’ activities.

Study hard, get a good job, and you can afford next year’s iPad.  Now that’s fair.

O Weary Traveler, Welcome to my Humble Blog

Hello!  I am Jon Siegelman, Ph.D.  I have run Scorebusters tutorial service since 1988, and teaching is my passion.  I have taught science, math, computer skills, English, and test preparation.  However, this blog will be devoted to the SAT exam, and to some extent, the process of applying to college.

Over the years, many folks have asked me for advice about the SAT and the admissions process.  It occurred to me that, by writing a blog, I could help a lot more people.  I look forward to interacting with you.