Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Challenging the Ridiculously High Costs of College Textbooks

A standard 1st year (Single Variable) Calculus book for $191.75?  A Pre-Calculus text for $274.25? (Used for $205.75).  An introductory text to quantum mechanics (Griffiths) for $171.25? (Used for $128.50).  A first year paperback French language text for $135.75?  These are typical new and (some) used prices for college textbooks as billed at the Loyola University (New Orleans) bookstore for courses coming up this fall. Can anyone say 'shell-shocked students shellacked'? 

It's bad enough college students have to endure massive increases in tuition, room and board at even public universities, but the inflation in text books surpasses even those. How to get a handle on it? That is a question that needs to be addressed. What makes it so incredible, is that my total cost for text books in my senior year at University of South Florida  (where I graduated in astronomy) was a flat $100. That included one brand new Modern Physics text ($13.90), a used book on Differential Equations ($15) and  two books for the grad level course, Stellar Structure &  Evolution (Chandrasekhar's Stellar Structure (Dover, $3.75), and Martin Schwarzschild's The Structure and Evolution of the Stars (Dover) for $2.75.)

How text book costs have exploded since then, with new college students now likely to pay a whole grand just to get their books for one term, used or new. How to get a handle on these absurd costs? In an article ('What Are We Doing About the High Cost of Text books?') appearing in The Notices of the American Mathematical Society (August, p. 927) a number of feasible solutions are proposed. The article was actually written by the American Institute of Mathematics (AIM)  Editorial Board.

One solution proposed for math, which hopefully other STEM courses will follow, is to seek out good "open" texts which can be either "open source" (meaning their source files are freely available) or "open access" - meaning the books are freely available in digital format.

A major problem associated with such books is, ironically, their excess. As the authors point out:

"Search for free abstract algebra texts and you will get two million results or more. You will find that the top 150 entries or so actually look promising, but then you notice some are duplicates and some are links to pirated versions. Many of them point to supplemental notes, exercise solutions, and other material related to the books. Very few are actually links to entire textbooks that can be obtained without cost."

The authors note that with their new project, they have the goal of finding, evaluating and promoting good open texts in math that can be then available for courses, whether in abstract algebra, complex variables, calculus or whatever and these can be made available to students.

The criteria they will use are described in detail on their website:


There are currently twenty-one books in 13 courses on the approved list. Not a whole lot, but at least a start. (They cite Tom Judson's Abstract Algebra: Theory and Applications, as an example of a 1994 text that can come back and be open source.)

Another option is to do what Virginia Commonwealth University has done, and take the LATEX source,  invest time and money in the formatting and editing then arrange for Lightning Source to print and bind the book after which Amazon sells it (the price is only $20 hard cover and at no cost in the PDF version)

For the university professor, there are things that can be done to contribute to the open source movement:

- Circulate information, let your colleagues know about which books are available for particular courses

- Let the authors know when you use their texts and also provide feedback, in reviews  (including pointing out errors and typos)

- Consider contributing supplementary material

The Open Academic catalog can be found at:


Whatever is done, headway must be made sooner than later on lowering text book costs for all college students.

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