Textbooks; the Hidden Monopoly

Jarett Wall, Contributing Writer

I, like so many other college students this past week, purchased my textbooks for my class. I knew I was in for a rough experience when the first textbook I added to my card was $240 for an intro into Conversational Spanish textbook. Two days later, the book in question would arrive, and to my great displeasure, my book was loose-leafed, which had been hole punched. I paid over two hundred dollars for what amounted to a hundred hole-punched sheets of copy paper. 

This experience, while not my only poor experience with college textbooks, was the final straw. With that anger burning in the back of my mind, I set out to answer “how on earth college textbooks got so expensive?” 

The price of college as a whole has been on the rise in the last decade, reaching tuition prices never dreamt of before. And the cost of college textbooks has been no different. The National Association of College Stores reports that the average student spends $662 annually on course materials (Vlasova, 2021).  

While this cost is small compared to the average tuition price at most universities, community colleges like our own see the same price for textbooks as more prominent universities. Many people choose community colleges for their affordability, meaning the cost of textbooks could be larger than tuition. 

“I buy out of pocket for my textbooks, and I rent them if I can,” Said one of the students I interviewed. I go here because I am scholarship, so the fact that I pay out of pocket is a big deal to me”. Another student responded. “It put a little damper in my savings account.” Another one of the students I interviewed said “one of the main reasons I go here is for the low tuition prices.” These growing textbook prices pose a succinct threat to community college students in general. 

One reason for the growing price of textbooks is a lack of producers. Three publishers control 80 percent of the U.S. textbook market and have used their share to drive up prices (Lumpkin, 2021). This list includes names you might be familiar with, including McGraw Hill, Cengage, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. And recently, McGraw Hill and Cengage attempted a merger that would have given them roughly 45% of the U.S. college textbook sales (Lumpkin, 2021). This merger got broken up by the department of justice, which filed antitrust lawsuits against this deal. While this has stopped this merger, talks between the two companies are far from dead. Meaning an already unsaturated market could see textbook prices skyrocket shortly. 

Another problem is the lack of choices for students. Most students are required to buy a specific textbook in order to take a class. This textbook requirement essentially holds these students captive to buy their books. And sellers take advantage of this. They do not have to compete among other sellers. Hilariously, changes made to make textbooks less expensive, like the prominence of internet textbooks and online used textbook sellers, have just caused companies to include an online access code that ensures that students must buy these textbooks directly from the sellers. 

Even as students and third-party booksellers get more creative, it opens new avenues for big textbook companies to exploit, leaving the future of textbook prices to appear bleak.