James Stewart died last month.
A former math professor at McMaster University, Stewart is perhaps best known to Penn State students as the author of the textbook “Calculus.”
As of now, a new seventh edition copy of Stewart’s “Calculus,” which is required for Math 140 and 230, costs $231.92 on Amazon (with free two-day shipping). A used copy goes for a more reasonable $125 (plus four bucks for shipping), while renting the book for the semester costs $58.49.
College Board estimates the average student at a four-year public college spends $1,200 per year on books and supplies.
According to a study published by the Government Accountability Office, the price of new textbooks has increased 82 percent from 2002 to 2012, compared to a 28 percent increase in overall consumer prices over the same time period.
In response to rising textbook costs, some students are giving up on them altogether.
A survey of over 2000 college students conducted by Student PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) found 65 percent of respondents “decided against buying a textbook because it was too expensive,” and 94 percent of students who had “foregone purchasing a textbook were concerned that doing so would hurt their grade in a course.”
In light of all the evidence, a question that should be familiar to anyone who walked into the Penn State Bookstore arises: why are textbooks so expensive?
“[P]rofessors assign specific editions and just five publishers have a lock on the [textbook] market,” said Ethan Senack, a Higher Education Advocate for US PIRG, in an interview with online news outlet Attn. “That means they’re able to drive up prices without fear of market competitors.”
Publishers also release new editions of textbooks every few years, rendering old editions obsolete, regardless of whether or not the updates are necessary.
“The subject of calculus did not change much in the last hundred years,” said a UCLA calculus professor in a CalPIRG study. “[T]here are no reasons why the textbooks have to be updated every five years or even more frequently.” (For the record, the sixth edition of Stewart’s “Calculus” was published in 2007, and the seventh in 2012.)
The professor continued: “New illustrations are sometimes added, exercises are shuffled and so on, but these do not substantially affect teaching/learning. Textbook publishers produce new editions solely as a means to sell more books and make more profit.”
Thankfully, Penn State students have several options to save money and stick it to the publishers.
University Libraries offers a course reserve service where students can check out textbooks at no charge for two hours at a time, available at Pattee Library in addition to branch libraries like the Engineering Library at Hammond Building or the Physical and Mathematical Sciences Library at Davey Lab.
Students can also request textbooks using the Interlibrary Loan service. It takes a few days for processes to be requested, but students can keep textbooks for months and renew them several times.
As a result, I haven’t bought a single textbook in the past two semesters. In my naiveté I did buy a physics textbook my first semester, though I ended up dropping the class and using the one on course reserve anyway.
Trekking to a branch library to do homework can get annoying, though it’s an annoyance I’d gladly accept over forking out whatever ungodly sum of money it would take to even rent the material.
Besides, walking to the library is pretty much my only source of exercise, and working in a library removes many opportunities for distraction.
Even if you don’t heed the above advice, be sure to wait until classes actually start before buying/renting textbooks. Professors will usually give a spiel in the first class on whether or not you actually need the textbook — Zachary Tseng’s sections of Math 251, for example, forgoes the textbook entirely and relies on material available online.
As the cost of higher education rises with no end in sight (Penn State is the second most expensive public school in the country, after the University of Pittsburgh), the least students can do to save money is to try to opt out of the publisher-rigged textbook marketplace.
According to U.S. News & World Report, publishers receive around 77 cents on the dollar from textbook sales, with 12 cents going to the authors.
James Stewart used his textbook profits to build a five-story, 18,000 square foot private house in Toronto. Described in appearance by the Wall Street Journal as an “accordion in motion,” the house features “floor-to-ceiling glass” and even comes with its own concert hall.
The cost? $24 million.