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College Textbooks are a Scam

I never imagined my university would team up with textbook manufacturers to scam me out of money, but they did. I was raised in a working-class household. Money was a constant stressor for us. My mother worked various jobs in the service industry and childcare. My father was employed by one company his entire life and worked his way up into a managerial role. Neither of my parents graduated college; my father always dreamed of his children graduating college. The importance of receiving a higher education was instilled in me from a young age.

I was unsure of what I wanted to do with my life, but higher education was essential. In my early twenties I came to realize we live in an unjust society. We live in a stratified society with exorbitant college costs and high levels of wealth inequality. I knew I wanted to be an agent of change and advocate for policies to better serve everyone. I decided to get a Masters degree in Social Work to work towards this goal.

I understood there would be many obstacles to reach this goal; I didn’t know buying textbooks would be one of them. College textbooks are a scam. This may seem like a controversial statement, but I have heard it from every student I know. During my first year in graduate school, I spent over $1000 on textbooks.

That’s right; I spent over $1000 on just textbooks. I had to take out additional student loans to pay for my books. At the time, I thought these textbooks were essential to my education; I was wrong.

That first year I used a third of these books regularly. The rest I used a few times or none at all. After each class ended, I went to the bookstore to return my unused textbooks. Each time I was told that the return period for my purchase had passed, but I could resell some of them as used textbooks. That first year I was offered less than $400 for my books.

This was not ideal, but I decided to sell my books anyway. I got a fraction of my money back for a few books. I was told they couldn’t repurchase my remaining textbooks because the store had ordered new editions. I later learned that many “new” textbook editions have the same content with a few minor changes in formatting, graphics, etc. I was out several hundred dollars, and I didn’t understand why.

Later, I discovered there was a reason. Colleges and universities require specific textbooks for classes, forcing students to buy the material. Manufacturers can charge whatever they want because students have to buy them and there is little competition; a 2016 survey by the Student Public Interest Research Groups found that five companies control 80 percent of the textbook market. This is one reason textbooks prices have soared. According to the American Enterprise Institute, textbook costs have risen by 812 percent since 1978. We should not be lining the pockets of CEOs at the expense of students.

The good news: something can be done about this predatory practice. It is possible to make this content available to everyone at little to no cost.

The Colorado Department of Higher Education is advocating increased funding for Open Educational Resources (OER). OER’s are tools that are available to students at little to no cost. Online publishing of textbooks is a significant component of Open Educational Resources. Expanding funding for OER’s in Colorado would allow greater access to online teaching, learning, and research resources for all students. Expanding this program would allow greater access to learning materials for students. If there was a program like this in place while I was in school, I could have accessed books online and taken on less student debt.

OER’s would provide a more equitable higher education for everyone. Students would not be forced to take on the high cost of textbooks. Students already have to pay exorbitant fees for tuition, housing, health care, food, and other basic necessities.

Please support the expansion of Open Educational Resources on a federal and state level. Write to your state, local, and federal representatives and tell them you support expanding Open Educational Resources. This is one step we can take to ensure that students receive a more affordable and accessible higher education.

Christopher Nelson is a former MSW student at the University of Denver. He hopes to continue advocating for policies that advance equity for everyone.