The truth about textbooks

Photo Credit: Sharon Mccutcheon

Photo Credit: Sharon Mccutcheon

One thing a lot of us like to forget about when coming back for a second semester is the next round of student fees. While most of us usually have significantly less to pay come second semester when compared to the first, money’s always harder to come by once second semester rolls around. Either you burned through the extra OSAP you got from first semester or you over spent when you were home for the break, it’s often pretty hard to pay that second bill to Brock in full.

Beyond the direct fees you have to pay, there’s one other major expense that I for one always forget about (that is, until it’s too late), textbooks. The second I pull together the last of the money I need to pay Brock, I remember that $500+ elephant in the room.

Being in a social science program, textbooks usually aren’t a major concern to me. I’ve only actually needed to open a few of them in the 15+ courses I’ve taken, so normally I hold off on buying them unless I end up absolutely needing it. Despite this, I still often spend hundreds of dollars per semester for the few books I actually do need. Trust me, I know that I’m a lucky one too. Some programs assign $1,000+ in textbooks each semester. But instead of arguing about who is getting screwed hardest by Brock when it comes to textbooks, I think we can all agree that things need to change.

The campus store markup on textbook prices is practically highway robbery. If you are in a popular program, or are assigned a book that isn’t a traditional textbook, be sure to look it up online before you buy it and compare the prices to what they are charging in the campus store. I recently found a book that they were charging $150 for in the campus store for $25 online, that’s a 600% markup!

There might be a defence for this type of gouging if, say, the campus store was providing some incredible service that you couldn’t get anywhere else. Maybe if it came with a servant to turn the pages for me or the notes I needed pre-highlighted, but no, it’s the same book as the one I bought online.

So how can they get away with this? Well currently, there are no laws regarding this type of price gouging. Unless Brock signed an agreement that said “we are agreeing to fix the prices of textbooks with all other universities,” then they are well within their legal right to charge what they charge (even though it’s morally reprehensible and should be wrong).

The biggest reason why this continues and we all seem to just put up with it is because most people (myself included from time to time) are too lazy to get it somewhere else and just suck it up and pay the extortion-like campus store rate. Most people either aren’t aware that they can find the books elsewhere for a lot cheaper or they don’t bother to look for them.

Another major reason is professors (not all of them, but most). While the first lectures during syllabus week might seem like they go over everything and are endless, they always conveniently ‘forget’ to mention two things: the date to withdraw from courses without financial penalty and the truth about their textbooks. A lot of times it can feel like textbook poker, reading the professors tone of voice, their body language, eye movements and so on when they start talking about the textbook to tell if they’re lying about it being “absolutely necessary for my course”.

The only time I can understand why they do this is when they are the author of the textbook. If you get any kind of kickback from selling the textbook, for the long and hard work that goes into putting them together, I can respect that. But for everyone else? If professors are straight up with the students in your class about whether they need the textbook or not or where they might find it for cheaper or even offering a communal PDF copy through Sakai, I can tell you that none of them are going to tell Brock about it and get you in trouble. If there’s one sure fire way to get some of the best feedback at the end of the semester, do at least one of those things.

More often than not, if my professor is ever talking about the textbook, it’s usually to critique how it talked about a specific topic or to say that textbook content will ‘make up a smaller portion of the exam than lecture content’ (I’m sure that most professors don’t even know what’s in the textbook that they assign, for that matter). So unless you’re making money from the textbook yourself, or if it truly is a necessity for your course and you’ve tried to offer the cheapest option available for your students, give the campus store sales pitch a rest.

Before the recent reduction to OSAP funding under Doug Ford, I used to get enough each year to cover my tuition, my books, my parking pass and any other hidden fees I can’t think of off the top of my head. But the cuts have made textbooks more optional than a necessity. Given that I live at home and have few expenses of my own (save for unexpected stuff that comes up from time to time and gas money), I can’t imagine how much harder this must be for people living on their own. With $1,000’s cut from most people’s OSAP payments this past year, for some the decision could really be between getting all of their textbooks that semester and a few weeks worth of groceries. While the OSAP cuts have been hard for some (myself included) and literally career-ending for others, it has been an opportunity to reassess some of the fees that universities have been getting away with charging to students for a long time.

So what’s the solution? I’ve had a few classes where all the readings have either been posted from the textbook as PDF in chapter-sized chunks, or the class has simply been taught without one, just using academic journal articles and other content that they’ve found to be useful online. But a broader solution that the university should consider is more open educational resources and more textbook transparency.

Brock should offer as many textbooks as possible through Omni, or at least have them available to professors to dole out at their discretion. Also, in the cases where you are assigned fictional books or other books that aren’t traditional textbooks, they should be required by law to be transparent about their prices and where students can find the best price. While I can’t back this up with hard evidence, I bet Brock would have more students buy books through them if they offered fair and competitive prices, at least I know that I would.

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