Back to School, Back to the Books: The Value Behind Textbooks

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By Dr. Joseph J. Horton

The high price of college textbooks is getting a lot of press. Legislators are considering bills to bring down costs, such as requiring professors to use the least expensive “educationally sound” option. As I have read articles about the burden of textbook costs, I have done some soul-searching about the cost of the books I choose for my students. I conclude that the textbooks I use are a good value compared to the alternatives.

Many of the critics of textbook prices note that professors do not have an economic incentive to consider price. This is correct. We get our copies free from the publishers. My students’ education and learning experience is at the forefront of my decision making rather than their wallets.

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For my PSYC 101, Foundations of Psychological Science course, I use Exploring Psychology by David Myers. A used copy can be purchased from the Grove City College bookstore for $67. I require a supplemental text that offers a Christian perspective, which costs $11 for a used copy. Many students essentially rent their textbooks, reselling most of them at the end of the semester, with the net cost about half of what they paid at the beginning of the semester. New books cost considerably more, of course, and when editions change the books cannot be resold.

There are some discount textbook publishers that offer new textbooks for less than a typical used text. Is the book I use really better than these? Yes. The author, David Myers, has been writing textbooks longer than my students have been alive. As a result, his writing is more engaging, the examples are better, and the content is more complete than what I have found when considering discount textbooks.

Furthermore, the price of a top-notch textbook includes more than just the book. The publisher of the text I use provides me with DVDs of short videos demonstrating the research we are considering. Many students have told me that these videos are very helpful in their understanding of the material. The instructor manual that comes with a top-quality textbook provides a wealth of activities and suggestions. My courses have been made richer due to publisher-provided materials. Online-study tools for the students are provided as well. The costs of these materials are paid by textbook purchasers who may not connect these benefits to the price of their books.

For students who keep their books, e-books may one day offer an attractive alternative. Grove City College recently asked faculty and students to evaluate current e-book technology. The college found that e-books currently lack the capability to highlight and make notes efficiently. On the other hand, a benefit is that students could easily carry their entire reference library with them.

An intriguing alternative is that professors should create reading lists of articles that students would read instead of a textbook. This has worked well for me with my upper-level courses. I am teaching two upper-level courses this fall. One course has no textbook, and the books for the other course cost only $16.50. I am able to do this because the college purchases an institutional Copyright Clearance Center license, which is paid for via tuition. There are no free lunches, but some lunches are discounted.

Could I do this with my lower-level classes? Lower-level courses broadly expose students to a field. To use readings rather than a text requires finding readings that cover the broad range of topics, which are written for novices while being scholarly. I am doubtful that a sufficient number of suitable articles exist to replace an introductory textbook.

In short, I see value in what publishers add to my class. Would students be willing to give this up for lower cost? If they were, would the overall result be better or worse? I am convinced that the net cost to students for the books I assign is a good educational value. Plans to legislate lower prices may be popular, but lower prices with high quality cannot be legislated. Most faculty are faculty because we like students and are concerned about their welfare. We discuss the cost of textbooks and pedagogy in person and online. If something better than textbooks comes along, it will soon be widely provided to students. Textbooks are expensive, but they and the other products produced by textbook publishers are valuable educational resources.

— Dr. Joseph J. Horton is an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College and a researcher on Positive Youth Development with The Center for Vision & Values.


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