online learningCollege ended about 10 years ago for me. That wasn’t the dark ages of technology. We all had laptops and cell phones and constantly checked email.

We all worried about the prices of textbooks too.

Part of me wonders what it would be like if I went to college now. Colleges are starting their fall semesters right about now, and students are scrambling to find cheap versions of their textbooks for classes. These costs add up. College students find themselves spending hundreds of dollars just on books alone.

I was lucky, and tended to read the books in the library or buy them from students who had the classes the semester before. I tried to be as frugal as possible when it came to buying books.

It’s no surprise that a recent Book Industry Study Group survey said 34 percent of college students reported downloading course content from unauthorized websites last spring, up from 20 percent in 2010. (Read Joanna Cabot’s post from last month about the college textbook bubble.)

So, what would I do today?

Napster was big when I was in school. I downloaded song after song without spending a dime. Peer-to-peer systems are still alive, of course, and now students are scrolling torrent sites looking for textbooks. In one day last week, I saw two people on Reddit asking for help finding free downloads of their textbooks.

One of the books, a history book on Western civilization, cost $43.41 new, $38.23 used, or $16.99 to rent from Amazon. The other book was roughly the same price.

For college students, this is a lot of money, especially when you start adding them up over five classes a semester. And these books seem to be on the slightly less expensive side of the equation.

And so I wondered: Would the 20-year-old me do this if I had the opportunity? Would I download my textbooks on torrent sites?

Yes. I am almost sure of it. Anything to save money while in college. Things were expensive enough! Downloading a book would be easy, especially with the formatting software that’s available to make them compatible with e-readers or tablets.

If I were taking a class today, however, and I needed to buy a textbook, I probably wouldn’t download it from an unauthorized website (although I’m all for downloading books and not lugging around a heavy backpack). Perhaps that’s a point of view that comes with getting older and wanting to pay people for their hard-earned work. Or maybe it’s because I no longer feel like I’m about to go broke every other week.

But I see today’s students asking for help, and I get where they’re coming from. Even with all the publishing technology that’s gone mainstream, college textbooks are still expensive. And students still don’t want to pay for them.


  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education is virtually alight today with articles and comments related to President Obama’s recent announcements on how he proposes to reign in the cost of higher education. Curiously, the focus is exclusively on tuition so far. In all my reading on the subject today, I found not one mention of reigning in the cost of textbooks, a cost that has risen faster and higher than the medical sector on the consumer price index. Perhaps that is next on the White House agenda.
    Here is a sample from the CoHE:
    Here’s a dramatic chart supporting my assertion regarding the rate of textbook cost increase as compared to medical services, new home prices and the consumer price index:

  2. At under $44, that Western civilization book was a bargain. I just moved back to the town where I went to college. Checking out textbooks, I discovered that the standard text for physics classes is now almost $200. I forget the exact price, but mine must have been around $20. Physics isn’t fashion design. I suspect that 90+% of the content of the two books is identical.

    Those who’re going to college today don’t realize just how much has changed. When I was attending college in the late 1960s, it was possible to graduate (as I did) debt-free with help from parents, summer employment, and part-time work during school. Now that’s virtually impossible.

    What’s changed? For one thing, when I started college there were almost no federally backed student loans. Colleges simply had to be affordable. Yes, my first quarter’s total tuition at a state university was a mere $100. But about half my classes were in older buildings without air conditioning, the pool I took a PE class in was ancient, and there were few non-academic amenities. College was a place to learn and not to play. In addition, we did things to save money. On my campus, former Boy Scouts had a fraternity (of sorts) that ran a student-to-student used bookstore. That eliminated middle-men like Amazon and narrowed greatly the gap between what textbooks cost at the start of a semester and what they could be sold for at the start of the next.

    A lot has changed since then. I was surprised to discover that not only a few old buildings have remained but that they were the rattiest ones even when I was there–the engineering lab buildings. But the classrooms are either in new or radically remodeled buildings. There’s also far more places, including a fancy new exercise building and a paid-by-student-fees city wide-bus system for students. All that and the availability of student loans means that state legislators are also less inclined to fund their state universities, adding to the rise in tuition costs.

    That’s a lot of unfairness in the change. Those who come to study difficult STEM majors (like me) get shafted. They have to pay the high tuition and student fees but have little time for the amenities. Kids whose parents are rich incur no debts and play to their hearts content. Middle-class and poorer kids run up huge debts they’ll spend many years paying back.

    I wouldn’t put much hope in Obama et al fixing this problem. Academia is as much a Democratic party special interest group as are unions. There’ll be a New Deal-like effort to look like something’s being done–rhetoric and show projects–but the real causes of rising tuition costs won’t be dealt with, particularly the enormous growth in administrative bureaucracies, a vital Democratic interest group. The pay of professors has merely kept up with inflation and thus cannot be making tuition costs rise six times faster than inflation. The growth of that bureaucracy, with its ample six-figure incomes, is a key factor behind rising costs.

    Keep in mind one of the defining principles of the Obama administration, reflecting its roots in Chicago machine politics. Well-organized, militant groups, such as unions and environmentalists, get exactly what they want even if it hurts the country and economy. Poorly organized, passive groups that merely voted heavily for Obama get treated badly. That includes young adults and black minorities (sky-high unemployment) as well as students. If you can’t inflict pain, you get ignored–just like in Chicago.

    From the statistics it seems clear that groups that voted Republican seem to be least hurt by Obama’s policies. That’s partly because they live in states (i.e. Texas and Florida) whose policies at least partly counteract bad federal policies. On the other hand, those who vote Democratic live in states such as California, Illinois, and New York, where state policies augment the federal ones. Bankrupt Detroit is an extreme example of that.

    Even college costs are likely to reflect that difference. Texas working on providing a four-year-degree for $10,000 in tuition, roughly the cost of two lattes a day. In Illinois an ailing economy has meant that state funding for universities has been slashed over the past three years.

    In a nutshell, today’s young adults do have it bad in comparison to my baby boomer generation. Those huge college-loan debts, and the extra years it takes for them to find a job in their major will impose a cost they can’t outlive. The debts will delay a home purchase, making it more expensive. The delay in finding a good starter job means that, for the rest of their lives their resume will be lacking several years of pay-enhancing experience they would otherwise have. Even Obamacare hits them particularly hard, taking money from them in their healthiest years to subsidize those who’re older and probably earning more money.

    On the other hand, this younger generation has sat on their hands doing nothing while the cost of college skyrocketed. They voted for Obama and his economy-wrecking policies in 2008 and, to a lesser extent, in 2012. They’re simply harvesting what they’ve sown.

    Someone who is smart enough to attend college ought to be smart enough to notice those rising costs and the burden those debts will place on their life after they graduate. And they certainly don’t need any federal ranking system to find colleges that are keeping their costs under control.

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