How students are engaging textbook companies in a duel against high prices, and winning

Before entering the classroom of an intro-level economics course, students get a real-life experience with the subject — the required textbook costs $290 on Amazon. And that’s just one book for one class.

Textbook costs have surged 1,500 percent since 1970, according to the Economist magazine. That far outstrips the inflation rate of medical care, housing costs and food, and it’s three times the inflation rate of the consumer price index.

The hike in prices began when textbook sellers realized those who choose what to buy are not the ones paying. Professors select the textbooks based on content, timeliness and clarity, not cost, reported NPR’s David Kestenbaum.

“Like doctors prescribing drugs,” there is little incentive to compare prices, reported the Economist. And the market doesn’t practice normal price competition.

Like a cartel, textbook companies artificially raised prices because they could.

They did this in two ways:

According to the Government Accountability Office, publishers began including supplemental materials such as CD-ROMs and access to websites, according to the Huffington Post.

The textbook industry also began regularly issuing new editions. “According to a 2011 survey from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, new editions are released on average every 3.9 years, but a 2008 report from the California state auditor found many college deans, department chairs and faculty members admitted revisions to textbooks are often minimal and not always warranted,” Huffington Post reported.

These strategies backfired when students responded by buying used books, renting books, illegally downloading them, sharing books with classmates or not buying them altogether.

“The National Association of College Stores (NACS) says the average college student will spend $655 on textbooks each year,” reported the Huffington Post, while the College Board puts the annual cost of books and supplies at $1,200.

This means that despite a single textbook costing close to $300, students have simply stopped buying.

“Sixty-five percent of student consumers have opted out of buying a college textbook due to its high price, and of those students, 94 percent say they suffer academically,” reported the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The solution to the standoff between students and textbook publishers? According to a textbook executive who spoke to Kestenbaum, it’s software. Digital, interactive versions of textbooks are cheaper and easier to update and — the kicker — they cannot be resold.

Another option is the growing open educational resources movement, according to the American Enterprise Institute.

A startup called Boundless is a leader in the movement. They call it “textbook replacement,” reported Slate. “A great deal of academic content has been made available on the Internet, for free. The open educational resources (OER) movement has produced high-quality texts, videos, charts, problem sets, (etc). Some of the authors are college professors who want to share their work at a larger scale; others are sponsored by nonprofits promoting education in the developing world.”