What Does $999 Get You These Days? How About One Textbook…

As if college isn’t already expensive enough.

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities. The College Board reports that the average cost of room and board in 2017–2018 ranged from $10,800 at four-year public schools to $12,210 at private schools. When you add it all up, a moderate college budget for an in-state public college for the 2017–2018 academic year averaged $25,290. A moderate budget at a private college averaged $50,900. Villanova University, where I teach, estimates the average annual cost for a freshmen to be $67,328.

And all of these costs are before students buy a single textbook. The textbook for my class, an Introduction to Business course, costs $102. That includes a loose-leaf version of the textbook and access to the online-learning component of the textbook. If they just wanted to buy a digital version of the textbook, along with the online learning component, the cost is only $80. As one would expect, the digital version is typically cheaper than the print version.

So when I first saw the headline about a $999 textbook, my first thought was that it was a typo, and the price was really $99. The second possibility I thought of was the book may have been for a STEM class, and that the book could be used for multiple semesters, like Calc I, II, and III. Still, $999 is an outrageous price for a college textbook, even if was a book that could be used for three different courses.

But then I clicked on the story about the $999 textbook at the web site InsideHigherEd, and this is what I found:

The image, taken from InsideHigherEd’s web site, is a screenshot of a post made by Maddy Meaux, a University of Louisiana at Lafayette (ULL) student, to a ULL book swap Facebook site.

I was dismayed to see that it was an accounting textbook! But then I saw that it was a textbook for both Financial and Managerial Accounting, which are normally two separate courses. While that would still make the cost outrageous, perhaps it was a textbook whose cost would be spread over two semesters, making it a teensy-weensy less outrageous.

Alas, that was not the case either. According to Meaux, the $999 is the cost for using the book for just a one-semester course, and just for the digital version of the text and the online learning component!

So now it’s back to being completely outrageous (although a statement from the University claims that the book could be used for two courses).

Meaux’s post created a firestorm, and rightly so.

In response to the criticism, the university provost issued the following statement:

The publisher, after conversations with the Department of Accounting, set the online price at nearly $1,000 to discourage students from choosing to buy materials directly from its website. They believed it was best for the students to use a printed textbook since many of the materials in the book are needed for homework and classroom instruction.”

Rather than simply not offering an online-only option, Wiley (the textbook publisher) and the accounting department at UL-Lafayette worked together to discourage students from buying the ebook — setting the price so astronomically high that no one would actually buy it, and at the same time making the print option seem like a relatively good value.

The provost’s statement then notes

But again, let me stress, this is a misunderstanding. The University wants students enrolled in the course to spend only $313, and I am grateful for the chance to encourage them to do so.”

There were also the following tweets from the University:

All of these decisions and responses seem incredibly naive, insensitive, and possibly deceptive on the part of all those involved. Most students are on a budget, and stating that a textbook is “only $313” does not alleviate their money concerns. If they can save some money on a textbook, they should be given that option.

The faculty and the publisher need to be honest with what the options are for buying a textbook, and what the prices are of the various options. I just found a copy at Amazon of a loose-leaf version of this textbook, along with access to the online learning component (WileyPlus), for $201. The ULL bookstore was selling a bundled print and online textbook for $253.25 from the college bookstore. This price also includes the access code for the WileyPlus online teaching and learning platform. (In addition, the students were required to purchase a packet of homework assignments to accompany the book for an additional $59.75, hence the $313 price referenced by the provost earlier.)

Ignoring the fact that college textbooks are quite expensive, I can understand the higher price at the bookstore compared to Amazon. However, the option to buy just the online version of the textbook should be in line with the bookstore price, if not slightly lower.

The faculty should offer students the option to buy either a physical copy of a textbook, or a digital one. If the faculty are concerned that the students will not learn as effectively without having a physical copy of the textbook, this should be explained to the students, and then let the students decide. As long as students are made aware of the pros and cons of using either version, then the decision should be left to the students.

If the faculty felt strongly that students should not buy the online version of the textbook, then it seems that they should have simply not made it an option, let alone a $999 option. If they were trying to trick the students into thinking that the $313 was a good deal by comparing it to $999, that is just wrong.

I hope it was just naïveté on the part of the faculty and the publisher, and that they simply didn’t think through the best way to ensure that the students have a positive learning experience in the course.

I’m assuming that no student paid $999, and if they did, I am sure the school would rectify the situation.

In the meantime, I wish the students the best of luck with the course – it is a useful course for all business students,

And the textbook is excellent, but not worth $999…

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