The Problem with Textbooks

This semester, students once again participated in a somewhat convoluted bi-yearly ritual, where a list of “required” textbooks is accumulated from classes and is then dealt with in such a way that often leaves wallets lighter than desired. Mixed in is usually a trip to the campus bookstore, nearly always featuring prices higher than other sources, for books that have a chance at being waved off as unnecessary once classes start. While this process will always be a financial burden, it has become clear that university policy and the bookstore have practices that increase that burden unnecessarily, and those practices should be corrected as soon as possible.

MSU’s strategic plan says their overarching goal is to prepare students to graduate equipped for careers and further education. The bookstore’s official mission is “satisfying customer needs with the best possible service, products and prices in a customer-friendly environment.” However MSU policy, combined with the workings of the bookstore, lead to barriers in student preparation. These barriers make the already challenging process of buying textbooks more complicated and expensive than necessary, with the bookstore rarely offering students the best prices. While savvy students can overcome this, MSU practices can tend to take advantage of those who are unaware of alternative options, falling into the bookstore’s prices.

The bookstore has done well in providing the ability to compare book prices on its website to give the appearance of combating its own high prices, though the user interface unfortunately is poor at communicating information to students, and tends to entice students towards coming to the bookstore to identify and possibly acquire the overpriced item. It does, however, bring attention to the often massively inflated textbook costs the bookstore has compared to other sources, where a textbook in the bookstore can be sold for up to five times as much as the same product on Amazon.

This problem is enhanced by the tendency for students to receive “required” book lists ahead of the semester, which are often revealed to be misleading by the professor once students start class. Professors often say this is result of school policy that inclines the requirement of more books than necessary, resulting in at best inefficient pre-semester planning and at worst unneeded spending. This is despite the existence of a suggested option for booklists, which is quite underused, and has been experienced across a variety of major departments.

A lot of the fault in the supposed price of textbooks lies with the textbook publishers themselves. Every semester, professors across campus explain how a new books were released for their classes. But, upon examination, the new textbook is hardly different than the old one, so either the teacher requests the old book be made available by the bookstore or simply informs the students that they will have to deal with differences if the students acquire older editions. Publishers release new versions of textbooks as frequently as possible for more constant monetary gain, which forces the universities to order the newest versions. This chokes the used book market, a popular alternative to buying books through universities. While publishers absolutely have the right to make enough money to finance the creation of new textbooks future students will actually need, MSU needs to identify the line between supporting that goal and supporting publisher profits.

Ultimately, MSU and the MSU bookstore need to work together to create a more accessible and transparent system for students to buy textbooks in to reduce student obstacles at the beginning of each semester. MSU needs to rein in its deals with publishers to make sure professors aren’t encouraged to require the newest possible textbook, with the priority being the concepts of the class, not the relationships with publishers. Professors should only require books that support the class, in order to avoid unnecessary spending on the part of the students. While it may hurt them financially, the bookstore should add clearer messaging to both the physical bookstore and their website to indicate when there is a much cheaper external option, to avoid excessively overcharging students. The bookstore has a right to sustain itself, but there is a line between that and over charging, which would be further avoided by considering not selling some of the most overpriced options altogether and preventing students from making financial mistakes. Steps like these are necessary to begin to make college more affordable and accessible to students.