February 21, 2020
In my last semester of college, I spent $231 on textbooks. $200 of that $231 was spent on books for one three-credit class. As an english and professional writing double-major, I’ve been able to scrape by spending less than $50 a semester on an used book or two, now that my general education requirements are over. But for some reason, my last semester really hit me hard, more than quadrupling my usual semester spending limit. And my textbook budget is relatively low — it’s nothing compared to students in other majors.
After running into a friend at the bookstore and hearing that she was spending $198 on a loose-leaf, unbound, shrink-wrapped textbook that she couldn’t return, and hearing that someone else was spending close to $80 on a digital code just to be able to do the homework for his class, my frustration with the price of textbooks only grew.
According to NBS News, textbook costs have risen more than 1000 percent since the 1970s. And according to Forbes, the price of tuition has risen 500 percent since 1985. Education is a fundamental human right, but it’s often regarded as a privilege, and one of the main reasons why is because so few people can actually afford all of the smaller expenses that add up, in addition to tuition.
In fact, according to VitalSource, books are becoming so expensive that some students are forgoing even purchasing or renting them in the first place. Students paying for a higher education would rather struggle through a class and risk getting a lower grade then spend the money to buy a textbook.
Even in recent years, as textbook companies have shifted to making some books available online, there is often still an access code a student needs to buy. And unlike printed books, an access code can only be used once, so after it is purchased there is no way to reuse the book or give it to another classmate. For printed books, it can sometimes be understood why they are expensive because the cost of printing (especially in color, which many books need to be in) is very high.
But paying hundreds of dollars for a piece of paper with a number printed on the back? This is elitist education in its truest form — requiring students not only to have the money to buy the code, but requiring access to a computer to do the readings or complete the homework. Laptops are a couple thousand dollars, and not every university has a 24-hour computer lab available to students.
I had a professor once who created the entire classroom on Google drive, and had us turn in papers online to even minimize the cost of printing. For students who could not access the internet on a daily basis, she made accomodations and allowed assignments to be hand written or turned in at a later date. In some spaces, I see a conscious awareness to the fact that education is far too expensive, and a conscious effort to make accommodations, but this way of structuring a classroom needs to be much more common than it is.
I am lucky enough to attend a university that offers me access to computers, and to have had so many professors find a way to get all readings online, or require few to no textbooks at all. I am a full-time student, in class for over 20 hours a week, lucky enough to be also working a job. Even with my bi-weekly paycheck, I could not afford to pay for my textbooks wholly on my own. I am so fortunate to have resources to fall back on, but I recognize that this is not the reality for every student in my position.
It is frighteningly clear that the emphasis of education is on institutional profit, and not on the actual education of individuals. There is no reason why students — one of the groups of people who struggle the most financially — should have to pay hundreds of dollars for books on top of tuition when a few kind professors and generous authors have proven that materials can be made available and accessible for everyone.
Leah Wright is a senior studying Professional Writing and English with a concentration in creative writing. She is pursuing a career in editing and publishing, but hopes to eventually become a published novelist. When she isn’t in class, she can most likely be found spinning flags with various color guards, but she also enjoys listening to Bruce Springsteen and reading good books.