textbook costs
Credit: Seyoung An

It was the first day of spring semester and I looked through the syllabi of my courses, making a list of the textbooks I was required to to purchase for this semester: $110 for accounting, $175 for biology, $90 for history, $200 for finance, and $280 for real estate. A total of $855: a large sum of money that would be paid out of my own pocket. 

In fact, textbook costs are a significant percentage of the total amount of money I spend each semester. I’m not the only one who faces this problem. In my real estate class, another student who told me he was considering dropping the class due to the exorbitant textbook price. He felt not buying the textbook would put him at a disadvantage, given that the professor assigns practice problems from it — a sentiment I’ve felt many times myself. Such prices have forced students like myself to consider an unfortunate tradeoff between the value derived from taking a particular class and the price of its required course materials. 

Every semester, students are required by professors to purchase textbooks and course packs that can cost as much as $250 per class. For a student taking four classes per semester — the bare minimum for a full-time student — this can total up to $1,000 per semester, an extra price paid on top of an expensive and growing tuition. The soaring cost of college textbooks affects a majority of the Penn student body, to the point where some are forgoing purchasing books altogether, ultimately putting themselves at a significant disadvantage to others in their class who can afford the materials more comfortably. This financial disadvantage has the potential to affect students’ grades and, as a result, their future career prospects. Oftentimes, the cost of these required course materials are unnecessarily exorbitant. This begs the question: Are the soaring textbook and supplies costs a necessity for higher education? 

“Professors frequently require the purchase of expensive textbooks and online course materials for students taking their class. This is a financial burden that disproportionately affects low-income students and significantly disadvantages those who are not able to afford them.”

As part of Professor Adam Cobb's MGMT-104 course, we are hoping to mobilize a social movement to promote lowering the financial burden of books and supplies on students.

Out of all Penn students, 53 percent  do not receive financial aid of any kind. Results from a survey we conducted on Penn students show that those who do not receive financial aid have felt significant financial burden from required course materials which usually cost more than $50 per class, and around 50 percent have felt disadvantaged in a course due to not being able to afford the textbook. 

To all Penn professors: This is a real problem that is negatively affecting students’ academic experience and growth. This may not be something you are explicitly conscious of when deciding which textbook to assign for the course. However, the consequences of it are very real. We urge you to think about this when you’re deciding between using the old edition of a textbook in your class or the brand new edition that just changed the numbers of the sample problems in the back. 

Several high-quality alternatives exist when it comes to assigning materials to class. Open-source textbooks are peer-reviewed books written by faculty, just like traditional books, that are online and free to download. Textbooks and other materials are published under a license that allows faculty to personally adapt materials and students to access them for free or for a nominal cost. Furthermore, faculty often consider pricing and format options only after they have identified the most appropriate course materials. Newer editions of textbooks are often no different from the cheaper, older versions. In addition, there is often no more than one of these newer textbook versions available for check-out at Lippincott, leaving students strangled especially during the days leading up to the exam. 

Finally, readings assigned on Study.Net seems to have incentivized the wrong behavior by Penn students. Professors have so often shared readings on Canvas. These are often the same readings present on Study.Net, which seem to be readily available to professors. For instance, I once had a Legal Studies professor who stated how he felt uncomfortable making students pay for Study.Net which he was induced to use. He instead posted the files on Canvas. To resist this, some students at Penn tend to controversially split a course package with one another, ending up paying only a fraction of the total cost.

Professors frequently require the purchase of expensive textbooks and online course materials for students taking their class. This is a financial burden that disproportionately affects low-income students and significantly disadvantages those who are not able to afford them.

KENAN SALEH is a College and Wharton junior from Fond du Lac, Wis. studying biology and economics. His email address is ksaleh@sas.upenn.edu.

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