The great University textbook scam

Posted On: Tuesday - March 7th 2017 6:38PM MST
In Topics: 
  University  Economics  Artificial Stupidity  Inflation  Scams

Somewhere in one of the latter posts on the topic of Universities I promised to write later about the textbook scam that has been going on for a while - thanks a lot computer-tech! (you'd think it'd be helping the students, but the computer-tech has helped lock this scam in place, it turns out.)

Here's a bit of historical data first. Back in the middle 1980's a one-course book for a math or engineering class went for about $20 or less, and sometimes the 8 books or so for English may have added up to the same or about the same (but these were mostly novels, not textbooks). A thick old Chemistry or Physics book that covered 2 semesters were in the high $30's and that seemed pretty egregious.

Here is a 3-semester Calculus book vs. a new one by the one of the same authors as a 2006 edition:

OK, Isaac Newton and Mr. Liebnitz, little Gauss (as our professor called him), and the rest of these brilliant men worked out this great math from 200 years to 400 years ago. This stuff has not changed in any respect, so these many revision changes over just the 2 decades were purely a money-making endeavor and added nothing to the body of knowledge. This is part of the scam but there is more to it, coming a few paragraphs down.

Upon thinking about these prices, one can get deflated inflation figures from the US government that are rigged low to keep any inflation-adjusted transfer payments (especially SS) from rising and busting the budget more than it is already, or one could find real numbers. Shadowstats is one such place; it is a great site that works out inflation, unemployment, and other measures of the economy using consistent methods, unlike the US Gov't B(L)S. Just a reasonable number to use for the 3 decade period in question is approximately a factor of 3, with plenty of exceptional products/services that fall way off of this.

However, think about textbooks. Even if we stick with paper - not necessary anymore - printing technology and more so, word and image processing, have seen so many productivity improvements that the price rise for a textbook should be well under general averaged inflation. Yes, fiction and other non-fiction books at the Barnes and Noble and Amazon have seen a large rise during the 3-decade time period, but that's also needed for pay to the authors. What has changed in the standard textbooks in basic science, math, and engineering that requires a price rise for the same material? Nothing is what. This stuff gets recycled with possibly different graphics and different homework problems. Recently, I have seen lately some average humanities textbooks going for $150! That is just the average price of some regular one-semester book. Actual-paper textbooks have increased in price by well over a factor of 8. Well, OK, at least it should be cheaper reading the whole book on-line or on a tablet. It is to make it, but the textbook publishers don't pass this savings on.

With all this said, the reader must have been thinking "hey, get used stuff, that's what we used to do!" Let's go back a few decades again. Sure, we thought that too - the used books would cost about 75% to 90% of a new one, yet the stores would buy them back from you for < 50%, sometimes quite a bit less. There was a lot of collusion among the few stores too, as prices didn't vary but 5 to 15 cents. The idea of opening up an exchange occurred to me and many others, I'm sure, with some actually getting off their asses and doing it. At the early part of this period, newspaper ads were necessary, and an actual physical storage location would have been required. Even by the late 1980's some young entrepreneurs could have used a data base and just become middle men - no internet, but, hey, phones worked back then, too. I think it kept the publishers fairly honest, but the used market can depend upon the requirements of the professors too - more about this.

See, you'd think that now one could do great business in used books (in the image above see the used one for $20 - don't buy it just yet) to beat the ridiculously high prices and help each other out at both ends, buying and selling. One could use the internet and make it require almost no labor on the part of the middleman who builds said website - sounds great. Here's where the real scam comes in. They've got the courses requiring use of software on DVD or websites in which codes are required to keep use of it for the semester. Sure, the book can be passed on, but when the professors require, for part of your grade, work or reading material from the electronic portions (that require the code), there is not a good way to sell the material you paid for.

I suppose one can do a long night of PRT-SCREENing, even from the electronic materials, to store them and pass on, but I have seen it where the electronics require homework to get done within the secured websites. The code can't be passed on or the software hacked as each version of the DVD, or entry of the website, is kept connected with the student. I think it's locked up pretty well, but I'm no hacker, but I wouldn't say if I were.

Here's where the professor possibly comes into the scam, sometimes not really willingly but out of laziness. Suppose this 18th edition Chemistry book just came out. If the professor will just let the DVD's and website be optional extra study material, students who have just the book can get by. I have seen new additions in which I could find nothing different from the last edition besides, not different homework problems, but just swicheroos of the order of the homework problems at the back of each chapter. The professor can just print out the problems and hand them out or put the problem statements on the university's student-work website, or whatever they may call it, and let the students use older editions. That's not really a lot of extra work to save each student $100 or so and, in the process, fight a bit against this BS. Others might be involved in the publishing of this book and will make sure that you need their new book to pass the class. The last category are those who don't help due to laziness.

You'd think you would read or hear more complaints from the students. I can tell you why not - as
this post described, the school loan money is treated by many students as one big credit card with a long deferral time - for a 20 year-old, it's too long to worry much about, life is long. Put it on this semester's loan; after all, it's the same for all of us. This works just fine for textbook publishers, as they can jack the prices to the sky without much feedback.

Nice work if you can get it, and a small but not negligible part of the University Bubble. Al Capone and Tony Soprano both are turning green in their graves from jealousy (and from normal bodily decay, too, I guess).

Wednesday - March 8th 2017 9:45AM MST
Oh yeah, Dr. Connor lent me a book in grad school once. Something to do with gas dynamics at the graduate level. It was actually written by someone in the Aero department at Texas, and had sent to him to ... adopt it as a text or something by a book company.

Great book. The first three chapters were reviews of fundamentals of course. I think it was the third chapter, a relatively brief discussion of thermodynamics, particularly thermodynamic relations was better than anything I had ever seen in any other book.

I don't think I ever really understood them before reading that 20 or 30 pages, and I had already had at least 4 classes along the way where they were covered and discussed extensively.

On the other hand there are books that are hard to read and get anything out of. Shapiro's book is an example (think it was Supersonic Flow and Shock Waves - or maybe that was Hilbert and Courant. Been a long time).

Some of the classic books really suck, though the material hasn't changed at all.
Wednesday - March 8th 2017 9:39AM MST
These books often aren't much good, even the classic ones.

There is a book called "The Streetwise Guide to Calculus," or something I read once.

I always had a problem with the bounds of integration when doing calculus problems, but the book explained in plain English what all the proofs and gobbledy gook language used in the books actually meant.

I happened to flip through this at the library once, and decided to check it out. I actually read the whole thing, though I doubt calculus will ever really come up in my life again.

Makes me wonder if the language used in textbooks as we are used to them is actually helpful at all. Because seriously someone taking 3 pages to explain exactly what is going on, with a few diagrams is a lot more useful than someone being obtuse with latin sprinkled ito things.

Been a few years since I read this, but my impression was there just really wasn't as much to calculus (at least conceptually) in that 3 semester course as I remembered. Maybe 5 or 6 really important theorems or proofs, and the rest is just practice and learning some important tricks.

Along with memorizing some things.
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