BERMAN: High textbook prices hurts students

Exorbitant costs put low income students at a distinct disadvantage

$134.80 is the figure I confronted last week when searching for my Economics of Public Policy textbook online. This lofty price, even for a used textbook, immediately forced me to engage in my own economic reasoning, ultimately questioning the book’s value to me. I concluded that it was simply not worth the money to me right now; yet, as I enter my eighth semester here at the University, personal history suggests my performance in the class will suffer enormously if I do not purchase the material soon. Luckily, my family and I are blessed to have the financial wherewithal to purchase the textbook despite its absurd price tag. Yet, it is not surprising that one in six students elect to not enroll in a class based on the price of required textbooks. Such lofty textbook prices are unacceptable because they directly contribute to a gap in socioeconomic achievement levels for the students both at the University and across the country who lack the ability to easily obtain them.

In 2013, a study by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development concluded that the college-completion rate among children from high-income families has grown sharply in the last few decades, whereas the completion rate for students from low-income families has barely moved. An additional study by Brown University concluded first generation students are much more likely to get lower grades in college. A variety of socioeconomic factors certainly contribute to this achievement gap in college, such as the quality of a student’s high school and the school’s ability to prepare students for the rigors of a four-year university. Yet, once in college, one would hope that the achievement disparities among rich and poor students would become less stark.

However, the obstacles faced by low income students do not merely end upon graduation of high school; rather, they are compounded upon entry into college. The average cost of tuition alone has more than doubled since 1980. As if that figure is not startling enough, the average cost of college textbooks has increased eightfold over the same time period, and adds an even heavier financial burden on individuals who already find it difficult to finance college. Yet, there is an upside: students are not technically required to purchase textbooks in order to remain enrolled at a university like they are for tuition. Yet, the tradeoff of this decision is pretty clear, as a wealthier student who can purchase a textbook more easily is at an automatic advantage compared to his or her lower income classmates who might elect not to purchase the same book.

Federal student aid helps mitigate this socioeconomic achievement gap by covering the cost of textbooks. Yet, that is of course contingent on a student’s eligibility to obtain financial aid in the first place. Although financial aid helps pay for the education of two-thirds of college students, 34 percent of this aid comes in the form of loans which, although better than nothing, of course only ease the financial burden in the short run. Even lower income students who do benefit from FAFSA funding are not entirely freed from the financial hindrances of pricy college textbooks. Thus, we might assume that they too might elect not to purchase required textbooks because they realize that they are merely postponing an inevitable payment for later.

Although most of the political buzz surrounding the outrageous cost of college revolves around tuition prices, textbook prices have increased more rapidly and have also had a direct impact on the ability of low income students to achieve academic parity with their peers. This is an issue that ought to be taken just as seriously as tuition costs because it too contributes directly to the cyclical nature of poverty since subpar college grades often translate into lower starting salaries. There are various policy mechanisms, such as price ceilings, vouchers or subsidies that particular universities or states can implement to make textbooks more affordable for students. Regardless of the particular policy certain entities might adopt moving forward to lower textbook costs, they ought to be cognizant of the fact that they are making a humble yet tangible effort to reduce poverty in this country.

Jesse Berman is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at j.berman@cavalierdaily.com.

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