College Textbooks Are Ridiculously Expensive. Two Senators Are Trying to Change That.

Book prices have gone up 82 percent in the last decade, and Al Franken and Dick Durbin are planning to thwart more growth.

A student studies legal textbooks in the law faculty at Humboldt University prior to the beginning of the winter semester on October 11, 2011 in Berlin, Germany.
National Journal
Matt Berman
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Matt Berman
Nov. 27, 2013, midnight

Every­one knows that col­lege tu­ition costs have been skyrock­et­ing. But, it turns out, it’s noth­ing com­pared to the growth in col­lege text­book costs.

The Amer­ic­an En­ter­prise In­sti­tute shows just how much they have ris­en since 1978.

The 812-per­cent growth in text­book prices is far great­er than the per­cent growth for col­lege tu­ition and fees over about the same peri­od. Prices have gone up 82 per­cent in the last dec­ade alone. The av­er­age col­lege stu­dent is now pay­ing about $1,200 a year on text­books and sup­plies.


For stu­dents and their familes, the rising cost of col­lege text­books is a ser­i­ous prob­lem. Demo­crat­ic Sens. Al Franken of Min­nesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois have just in­tro­duced a bill to be­gin to fix it.

The Af­ford­able Col­lege Text­book Act, in­tro­duced by Durbin and Franken this month, aims to lower book costs by pro­mot­ing the use of open-source text­books. Open books, as defined by the bill, are texts that are “li­censed un­der an open li­cense and made freely avail­able on­line to the pub­lic.”

Open-source text­books aren’t rad­ic­ally new. Rice Uni­versity already of­fers nearly a dozen text­books for free on­line through its Open­Stax pro­gram, and aims to ex­pand the pro­gram to 10,000 stu­dents. Bound­less, an open edu­ca­tion­al-re­sources start-up, of­fers di­git­al text­books along with an app com­plete with flash cards and quizzes.

Franken and Durbin are hop­ing to speed up the open-source trend. Their bill would set up a com­pet­it­ive grant pro­gram to sup­port pi­lot pro­grams at col­leges and uni­versit­ies “that ex­pand the use of open text­books in or­der to achieve sav­ings for stu­dents.” 

As with any­thing that gets in­tro­duced in today’s Sen­ate, there’s no guar­an­tee that this bill will go any­where. Or that the grant pro­gram alone would sig­ni­fic­antly con­trib­ute to re­du­cing the amount of money stu­dents pay on text­books. But with the cost of new text­books grow­ing about 6 per­cent per year, it’s well past time to ac­tu­ally try something new. 

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