Tuition and room and board are often cited as factors behind the enormous total nationwide student-loan debt, which recently surpassed $1 trillion. One cost that is often overlooked, however, is the ballooning price of textbooks.
According to a report issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, textbook prices have increased by 82 percent since 2002, dwarfing overall consumer prices, which have increased by only 28 percent during the same time period.
While it’s true that modern technology provides students with opportunities to purchase digital texts for a cheaper price, the report also states that new print editions of books drive the prices for all other outlets. And since professors often require that students purchase the latest edition of a textbook each year, students often find themselves shelling out a substantial amount of money each semester.
These skyrocketing prices are problematic for many reasons. For one, students may feel less inclined to purchase expensive textbooks each semester, thereby putting them at a disadvantage in their classes.
But even more troubling is the move by many college students to illegally download academic texts from torrent services and other websites, causing the student to potentially face criminal charges for piracy. While committing crime should never be condoned, how can one blame students for seeking an affordable alternative to campus bookstores, at which some books can cost students several hundred dollars?
Furthermore, the price of texts are exacerbating the pervasive wealth inequality that is already present in the United States. Students from families with less wealth could potentially need to work long hours in addition to their class schedule in order to afford textbooks. This could lessen the amount of time these students have to study, creating an incentive for them to drop out of college and pursue other options.
If the Obama administration and other federal legislators are as focused on the ballooning student loan debt as they claim, they would be wise to propose regulations to rising textbook prices.
However, universities aren’t completely free of culpability on the issue of rising textbook prices. Colleges such as Pitt should require that professors release reading lists for their classes well in advance in order to provide students with an opportunity to purchase or rent textbooks from sources other than campus book stores.
The sentiment that higher education is the solution to exploding wealth inequality in the United States has become a common one. By taking simple steps to reduce costs of textbooks, U.S. leaders have the ability to expand access to college for students of all socio-economic backgrounds nationwide.