As college students, we all have our own horror stories about textbooks. Mine involves a $250 investment in one term of organic chemistry – right before I decided not to go to med school. A friend of mine still complains, years later, about the $65 lab book he used twice. We know, firsthand, all the tricks the textbook industry uses to grab our money – the bundled CD-ROMs and study guides we don’t need, the unnecessary new editions that kill off the used-book market and the shrink wrap that keeps us from returning our books if we have the temerity to drop the course after seeing just how boring the book actually is.

Angela Cesere

There might not be much the University can do about the broader sins of the publishing industry. There is, however, one easy and obvious move the University could make to lessen the burden of textbooks on students: make sure students know what books they’ll need well before classes start.

While campus bookstores used to have a virtual monopoly over textbook sales, the Internet offers students cheaper options, from used books to the international editions that publishers sell overseas at a fraction of the cost they charge comparatively rich American kids.

Buying textbooks online might seem like yet another free market triumph in the post-Cold War world. But here as always, capitalism doesn’t work as perfectly as a starry-eyed Ayn Rand devotee might think. You see, there’s a distortion in the market because of imperfect information – no one will tell us which damn books to buy.

It’s a pretty obvious problem, and students have worked on it before. Former Michigan Student Assembly President Hideki Tsutsumi made posting textbook lists on the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts course guide a goal during his term five years ago. (Incidentally, he won office by walking around campus wearing a sandwich board and talking to students for a year before the election, I kid you not. MSA presidential hopefuls, take note.)

Despite his efforts, only 20 percent of LSA courses then offered listed textbook information by the end of his term. While there certainly are courses whose professors are thoughtful enough to let prospective students know which books they will need, I doubt from my experiences that the overall fraction of courses providing textbook information has gone up terribly much since.
I asked LSA Student Government President Andrew Yahkind if LSA-SG was doing anything about textbook prices. He’s well aware of the problem: “People don’t talk about it,” he says, “but not everyone buys textbooks for their courses.” That alone ought to give pause to professors convinced that this year’s latest-and-greatest new edition – available shrink-wrapped but not used, of course – really provides the best education.

Yahkind spoke about LSA-SG’s proposal this fall that would require professors to post syllabi online two weeks before classes start, in order to make sure students know what courses they were getting into and had time to buy their books online. The administration’s reaction? “Unfortunately, the response I’ve gotten from the administration hasn’t been too enthusiastic about setting any sort of deadline,” Yahkind said.

The LSA administration, indeed, is not enthusiastic. LSA Associate Dean Robert Megginson says he is concerned about the prices that students pay for textbooks. He denies, however, that it would be feasible to implement and enforce any requirement that LSA professors tell their students what books they will need. “It would be a difficult thing to actually require,” Megginson said, adding that faculty often decide what books to use at the last minute. “This is a very strong faculty-governance school, and generally requirements that are imposed on faculty have to be imposed by the faculty themselves, not by the administration.” The undergraduate chairs of individual LSA departments, Megginson said, might be better able to get their faculty to list textbooks online.

Yahkind hopes to still make some progress, saying that LSA-SG now plans to talk to individual departments about making syllabi available earlier online. He suspects, though, that the LSA administration could require professors to list syllabi earlier. “I still believe that, if the faculty and if the administration wanted it enough, it could be required,” he said.

That seems right to me. It doesn’t do much good to get a softcover version online for a third of the cost if the book doesn’t show up until a month into the term. Requiring that professors actually tell us which books we will need isn’t some grave imposition, regardless of the bureaucratic barriers. Such a simple change that would save students money each semester is just the sort of policy that the faculty and administration should support if they’re concerned about their students. We’re the ones draining our families’ finances and going into debt ourselves to pay our professors’ six-figure salaries, after all.

Zbrozek can be reached at zbro@umich.edu

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