March 11, 2015

College textbook prices: 20 years.

This week Eric Zorn included in his weekly Tweet of the week poll one that lamented the cost of textbooks:

I thought: 80 bucks? In your dreams. I haven't seen a college textbook under about $120 for years (other than novels for English classes and trade paperbacks that have to price for a wider market).

But the comment isn't chronologically that far out of date: it's just that prices in this sector have increased at much faster than inflation for ages. I remembered grumbling about $50 and $60 textbooks only twenty years ago when I was an undergrad; that seemed expensive at the time. Has anything else doubled or tripled in price (other than gasoline) in that time frame? It got me to wondering if I was maybe misremembering---and then I remembered that I generally keep old textbooks, and because I'm me, I still even have the original sticker ("QUINCY UNIVERSITY BOOKSTORE") on many of them. So I can be a little scientific about this. Here is a list of college textbooks I still have, the year I bought them (not necessarily their publication date), and their price (all purchased new):

Book Year bought Cost
Sedgwick, Algorithms, 2e. 1995 $48
Russell and Norvig, Artificial intelligence, 2e. 1996 $61.25
Pressman, Software engineering, 4e. 1997 $77
Freund, Mathematical statistics, 5e. 1996 $75
Sliberschatz and Galvin, Operating system concepts, 4e. 1996 $58.50
Gaughan, Introduction to analysis, 4e. 1996 $65.25
Rosen, Elementary number theory, 3e. 1995 $61.75
Smith, Eggen, St. Andre, A transition to advanced mathematics, 3e. 1994 $50.75
Clark, Eschholz, Rosa, Language, 5e. 1997 $32
Sternberg, In search of the human mind. 1996 $59.75
Berger, Wallis, Watson, Constructing masculinity. 1996 $19.95
Walz and Piriou, Rapports, 3e. 1996 $55.50
Allison, Carr, Eastman, Masterpieces of the drama, 6e. 1994 $44
Pika and Watson, The presidential contest, 5e. 1996 $18.95
Kamien, Music: an appreciation (brief edition), 2e. 1995 $34.25
Harris, Understanding the Bible, 3e. 1996 $31.95

And I can do even better: most of these books are still in print in a later edition. Here's the current edition and list price for all the above books that I could find (in this one the years are actual publication years, and the prices are current list prices as of 2015); the last column is the multiplier from the mid-90s price I paid to the list price now:

Book date List price Increase
Sedgwick and Wayne, Algorithms, 4e. 2011 $84.99 1.8
Russell and Norvig, Artificial intelligence, 3e. 2009 $187.20 3.1
Pressman, Software engineering, 8e. 2014 $173.75 2.3
Miller and Miller, Freund's mathematical statistics, 8e. 2012 $168.40 2.2
Sliberschatz, Galvin, Gagne Operating system concepts, 9e. 2012 $181.95 3.1
Gaughan, Introduction to analysis, 5e. 2009 $66.00 1.0
Rosen, Elementary number theory, 6e. 2010 $177.80 2.9
Smith, Eggen, St. Andre, A transition to advanced mathematics, 8e. 2014 $278.95 5.5
Clark, Eschholz, Rosa, Simon Language, 7e. 2007 $77.75 2.4
Sternberg, Psychology: in search of the human mind, 3e. 2000 $110.95 1.9
Berger, Wallis, Watson, Constructing masculinity. 1995 (same!) $45.95 2.3
Walz and Piriou, Rapports, 3e. 2002 $250.95 4.5
Allison, Carr, Eastman, Masterpieces of the drama, 6e. 1994 (same!) $153.00 3.5
Pika and Watson, The presidential contest, 5e. (out of print)
Kamien, Music: an appreciation (brief edition), 8e. 2014 $146.67 4.3
Harris, Understanding the Bible, 8e. 2010 $133.33 4.2
In twenty years they have almost all gone up subtantially, in most cases close to or more than tripling. The transition to advanced math book went up a mind-blowing 450%, five and a half times the 1994 cost! And it's an outlier, but two others cost more than four times as much and several tripled in cost. Of particular note are two books who are still in print in the same edition I used twenty years ago---the masculinity book and the world drama book---whose prices have nevertheless gone up by factors of 2.3 and 3.5 respectively. Pure rent-seeking. (Kudos to Prof. Gaughan and/or his publisher, whose real analysis book is just a few cents more now than it was twenty years ago. Now that's an outlier.)

I believe this is an apples-to-apples comparison, too; although my mid-90s prices reflect the "price sticker cost" rather than official list price, in my experience college bookstores are not in the habit of marking down books below their list price, even now when they have Amazon et al to compete with, and especially then.

Meanwhile, the CPI has gone up by a factor of about 1.5 in the 20 years since early 1995. I find it difficult to even imagine what excuse the textbook publishers could use to justify the extortionate rate of increase in textbook costs in that period. If anything, with the higher ed market as busy as ever---higher numbers and higher percentages of the population are in college than ever before---economies of scale could even drive costs down. Or competition! What a laugh.

"Facebook is what happens to the Web when you hit it with the stupid stick." --John Scalzi Posted by blahedo at 2:31pm on 11 Mar 2015

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