High-Priced College Textbooks: Uncle Sam to the Rescue
By Dr. Mark Hendrickson
If you are a college student, professor, or bookstore employee, you know how jarringly expensive college textbooks are. It isn’t unusual for college students to have to spend over $1,000 per year on books. In an attempt to reduce those costs, on March 23 President Trump signed a $1.3 trillion appropriations bill that included $5 million for a pilot program to help to fund “open textbooks” — i.e, free books that authors post online.
A government program to increase the availability of free college textbooks is the wrong way to address a very real problem.
Obviously, millions of financially stressed college students will benefit from having alternatives to textbooks costing anywhere from $100 to $400. Frankly, for that kind of money, a book should not only contain some useful knowledge but also be able to shine its owner’s shoes, serve as a comfy pillow, and play a student’s favorite music.
Pardon my facetiousness. But the fact is that not only are most textbooks exorbitantly priced, they also tend to be of poor quality. It’s a disgrace, if not a scandal.
To give you one example: This semester I am using the 10th edition of the same textbook whose third edition was in use the last time I taught this course. The editors still haven’t changed the heading containing the misspelled “Confusianism” (the first “s” should be a “c”); many of the statistics have not been updated in 10 years or longer; it gives detailed accounts of esoteric academic theories, and then says, “Oh, by the way, we really don’t know if this is valid;” and there are examples of absurd political correctness, such as citing data published by The Heritage Foundation with a warning that Heritage is (gasp!) “conservative.”
I could give you other examples, but they would only depress you.
As an economist, I have long marveled at how much textbook publishers charge for such mediocre products. Whenever possible, I put together a course curriculum without using a textbook to help my students save money. Not every professor has the time to do that, though, so the movement toward open textbooks is a much-needed, welcome development. (A personal note: I know from experience how much work goes into producing a book, so I would encourage students who benefit from an open textbook to send its author(s) $10 or $20 as a “thank you” for saving them a hundred or more dollars.)
As good an idea as open textbooks are, it’s a bad idea for Uncle Sam (i.e., American taxpayers) to subsidize this worthy project. Progressives, of course, see nothing wrong with this. In their worldview, government should help to take care of us in every area of our lives. Once again, a number of non-progressives go along with the government program so that they aren’t branded as uncaring. Other than the politics of Santa Claus, though, there is no compelling reason why government should have created this pilot program. Yes, there is a need, but private markets are perfectly capable of solving the challenge of super-expensive textbooks. This would be an excellent type of project for foundations to underwrite.
The problem with government money is that it always has strings attached. Actually, foundation money often has strings attached, too, but the difference is that people donate voluntarily to foundations because they believe in their missions, whereas tax dollars are plucked involuntarily from citizens who may disagree strongly with how the money is spent.
Another problem is that getting Uncle Sam involved in choosing which textbooks to fund likely will explode into yet another strident ideological controversy. Do you really want the federal government influencing which books get published?
There is one more reason why Uncle Sam shouldn’t have started down this path. Actually, there are over 21 trillion reasons. With Uncle Sam already over $21 trillion in debt, this is not the time to add to discretionary spending, but, if you’ll pardon the radical idea, to shrink it. I don’t know which member of Congress slipped this pilot program into the recently signed appropriations bill, but let’s hope an alert committee chairperson eliminates it in the next budget cycle.
Dr. Mark W. Hendrickson is an adjunct faculty member, economist, and fellow for economic and social policy with The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College.