Friday, February 25, 2011

Transparency and Textbooks (or The Real Reason Your Major Matters)

A provision in the Higher Education Opportunity Act requires colleges and universities that receive federal aid to disclose what textbooks are required for each class and the standard retail price of that textbook on our electronic schedule of courses and on the course syllabi.  Eliminating the step of looking at the required textbook on the course syllabus or book list at the bookstore, and then looking up the price is somehow supposed to make college more affordable.  Don’t get me wrong; I like the spirit of this provision, but I’m not at all certain of what the outcome is supposed to be.  If the goal is to force me to require a reasonably priced textbook for class, I’m not at all sure this provision can accomplish that.  For one thing, forcing me to choose a text immediately after being assigned to teach a course, means that I have very little time to review textbooks and consult with colleagues and select the most reasonably priced book that will serve the needs of my students.  It means that an instructor is more likely to choose a book that another instructor has used in the past or the first one that comes to my attention (often through publishers’ advertisements) that looks as though it will do the job.  I can spend a few weeks and hunt down a good $60 text (assuming one exists), or I can choose the $100 one that the publisher just sent me a flyer advertising.  Requiring that this information be posted with the schedule of courses as soon as that schedule is posted does nothing to ensure that the best, most reasonably priced materials are selected.  In fact, it nearly ensures that a more costly text will be chosen.

The second problem with posting this information on the schedule of courses is that there seems to be an underlying assumption here that students can shop for their course work based on how much it will cost them to take a particular class.  So the idea is that my students sign on to the schedule or courses, look at the required class and decide “A hundred dollars for the text?  I don’t think so,” and change their major to pottery?  It’s possible that for the few general education classes where the students have a broad range of options for class, they might choose not to take the architecture class with a book that costs $120 and instead opt for the sociology course with a text that only costs $75.  That could happen, and I supposed it’s no worse a means of selecting a course than, but if you’re going to major in chemistry, you’re going to have to take some chemistry classes.  I suspect the chem department has some specific ones in mind and I’m sure they all require expensive texts.   Knowing the book costs $150 won’t get you out of introductory inorganic chem., nor will it make it any less expensive or painful.

That brings me to another problem with this regulation.  Knowing that the text for one course is expensive, doesn’t really tell you much at all about the cost of the class.  My younger sister, Skipper, was a science major.  I, because I really have very little grasp on reality much of the time, minored in arts and humanities.  We used to argue over who had to pay more for textbooks.  One book would routinely cost her $150.  One of mine would routinely run between $9 and $15.  Problem was, any given humanities course required at least 8 books, while that $150 book of my sister’s was the same text for at least 2 classes.  We sat down and figured it out one semester (because we’re both dorks.  It’s genetic.  I have a textbook that says so.) and within about $5, we were spending the same amount of money on textbooks.  My stat textbook in graduate school cost $160.  I never considered not taking the analysis of variance class for which I bought the book, regardless of the cost, because it was a skill I needed for my career.  That book was also the text for a regression analysis course and a multivariate analysis course, making the textbook cost per class about $53.  Having the cost of that book on the syllabus would not have given me that insight.

The stated purpose of this requirement is to make the cost of college more “transparent.”  It reminds me of one of my all time favorite movie lines from The Princess Bride:  “You keep using that word.  I do not think it means what you think it does.”  I’m not sure the person who wrote this legislation knew what they meant by transparency, because stating the cost of the textbook on the syllabus or even the schedule of courses doesn’t gain you transparency.  Students could always access that information before they signed up for a class by simply going to the bookstore and poking around for a few minutes, or more directly, ask the professor who usually teaches the course.  Requiring me to tell my students what the book costs gives them no more information than they would have had before, and doesn’t make the cost any more transparent.  It does no good unless the textbook companies are required to explain why textbooks cost as much as they do.  To be fair, one provision of the HEOA does require textbook companies to provide information on the expected cost of the text and the copyright dates of the last three editions of the text to prospective instructors.  I have occasionally seen the prices listed (a step in the right direction) but I have yet to see a publisher volunteer the copyright dates of previous editions.  Why is this important?  Because publishers often put out new editions of textbooks for reasons that aren’t really related to updating old information.  Sometimes it’s because they want to include a new author whom they expect will be writing future editions or other texts.  Sometimes it’s to include new technology (a new DVD, tie ins to Facebook and Twitter, etc.).  Sometimes it’s for something as mundane as updating the graphics or illustrations in the book.  Each new edition is typically more expensive than the older edition, and once a new edition is out, it’s often difficult to purchase large quantities of the old edition.  Students who wish to “sell back” their textbooks at the end of a semester often find that they are unable to sell back books for which there is a newer edition, or if they can, they are paid virtually nothing for it.

I would love to see textbook prices become more affordable.  Many of my students come from working class families and I feel a strong responsibility towards them and their education.  I know that many of them do not buy the books that they feel they can get by without because of the cost.  I try very hard to make sure that I am selecting a textbook for my classes that I believe is reasonably priced and useful for my students, and I believe that most of my colleagues do the same.  This bizarre regulation seems mostly to be designed to make someone feel as though they’ve taken a stab at a serious problem and at the same time lined up a suitable scapegoat to blame when the problem mysteriously continues.