The comparing of insane, several hundred dollar bookstore receipts at the beginning of a semester has become a collegiate rite-of-passage.
During the first two years of college, most students attempt to knock out all of their general education classes. The curriculum is the same for every student, the classes are required and the books might as well be priced by the page.
As reported in this issue’s cover story “One for the Books: SGA Promotes Textbook Affordability,” the Student Government Association is working alongside Maag Library to create a “course collection” of general education textbooks. If implemented, this kind of program could go a long way toward making textbooks affordable.
On the national level, some lawmakers are trying to deal with the textbook affordability issue once and for all.
Sens. Dick Durbin and Al Franken introduced the “College Textbook Affordability Act” into Congress in both 2014 and 2015. The act, if passed, would allow for the creation of “open license” textbooks. Essentially textbooks could be shared freely and online and would be significantly less expensive for physical editions.
As of October, the bill has been sent to committee, where it will likely die as it did in 2014.
So what’s the deal, Congress?
There are several reasons why the bill may be so opposed.
One may be that the committee reviewing the bill — the Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions — found legitimate reasons to doubt the bill’s implementation would work.
For the more conspiratorially minded and less trustful, it’s also possible that Congress simply doesn’t want to deal with the fallout of breaking up the textbook publishers’ money party. Or it could be that — as the Republicans are the Senate majority — they’re going to shut down anything coming their way from the blue side of the aisle, especially if it threatens business interests.
Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that this bill likely isn’t going anywhere.
That puts many college students in a tough spot. When facing the choice between purchasing a $400 Intro to Physics book they’ll never use again and failing that Intro to Physics course because they don’t have a book, it seems like the textbook industry has students’ arms twisted pretty well.
Faculty tends to do what they can to alleviate this pressure. Many students — at least at Youngstown State University — have likely had a professor begin their itinerary rundown with “I tried my hardest to find a cheap textbook for this class…” So it’s not like the faculty are unaware of the situation, and most are sympathetic to the struggle. At the end of the day though, if a class says the book is required, then it’s required.
So what is a student to do when they — justifiably — don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a book they only need for a few months but also want to pass their classes? They share, they copy and they pirate.
Why shouldn’t they? Sure, uploading and distributing a textbook online is technically pirating an intellectual property and therefore morally wrong, but isn’t extortion — and let’s not mince words, it is legal extortion by the publishers — worse? One can just imagine a track-suited, gold-chain-adorned publishing wise-guy shoving a $370 Spanish 1 book into a student’s chest and muttering “better buy it, I’d hate for something to happen to your grades,” punctuating the threat with a knuckle crack.
Hopefully on the local level, the SGA’s plan will help provide students who can’t afford textbooks options for completing their itinerary requirements without breaking the bank. Nationally, it seems the fight for fairer prices has temporarily stalled, and while that is bad for students, it is also bad for publishers. As necessity is the mother of invention, students will find a way to get what they need, and that may include going around publishers completely.
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