Thursday, June 5, 2014

Students Will No Longer Own The Books They Buy

By Professor Doom

     In days of yore, administrators of higher education had integrity, and felt responsibility towards the young people in their charge. Because administrators were human beings, and cared for the young, there were co-ed dorms (with strict rules about late night visitors), morality codes, adult supervision in the dorms…concepts that are alien today. All these rules were in place for much the same reason parents put rules on their children: to keep them from harm until they’re mature enough to handle responsibility.

     Those days are over, of course. Now students are customers, so no need to give them rules they won’t like. Even worse, students are customers of a business that is run by completely immoral owners…this hasn’t merely created a higher education system where students are now beyond notorious for massive use of sex, drugs, and alcohol (to the point that faculty are warned not to give tests on days where students are likely to be too hung over), but a system where the student-as-customer is to be fleeced of his money as rapaciously as possible.

     There’s nobody in power, and with integrity, to take some responsibility for the young.

     In my blog I’ve mostly ignored the textbook scam. Most of the $20,000 average college graduate debt is from tuition, after all, and so I’ve felt focusing on why tuition is so stupid high when faculty are paid very little and campuses are on tax-free land is more important.

     Allow me to summarize how the text book scam works:

     Students are a captive audience, they generally MUST buy the book for the course. Faculty choose the book, so are courted heavily by publishers. Now, once the course is finished, many students have a barely used book, which (if they don’t care about the material) they’ll sell to the next class of students.

     So, students buy the book, use it for a few months, then sell it to the next batch of students coming in.    
     Those sales of used books cut into publisher’s profits, so they come out with new editions every few years, making the “old” books basically worthless. Well, sort of worthless, as most faculty honestly don’t care if the students use a 2 year old book or a new one. The changes in these “new editions” are miniscule; I had one book that, between the 6th and 8th editions, matched almost line for line until page 112, at which point there was a half-page difference between the two editions.

Admin: “Please do not sell the books the publishers give to you. Those are now college property.”

--Publishers often give books to faculty, mailed to the faculty by NAME. If the book isn’t being used, faculty must choose between letting the book rot on a shelf for decades, or selling it to a bookseller offering around 5 cents on the dollar (in the hope that he can quickly find an institution that uses the book). Over the course of decades, I’ve made about $2 a year selling these worthless textbooks. Nonetheless, administration, eager to keep faculty as poor as possible, simply hates the idea of faculty making money that admin might somehow be able to steal for themselves. On the other hand, if I ask for a refund for using my own materials at the school, well, that’s just not going to happen.

      While this scam is an attempt to fleece students, there are two benefits. First, a student that really wants to learn can save a fortune buying older editions of the book for a pittance; he’ll have to put upwards of 15 minutes a semester into “translating” from the old edition to new, but motivated students can do that.

Faculty:   “There was a problem with the textbook. Namely, it stopped being used by a number of institutions in the same semester. So, they flew me, and others members from the other rejecting institutions, to Chicago to directly address the publisher, explaining why we would no longer use the book.”

--this happened to a friend of mine, and is a good example demonstrating how much money is in textbooks.

     The second benefit is, because of the all the money pouring in, and the competition between publishers, those textbooks are often very good. Errors are fixed between editions, explanations are as clear as one could hope for, and the examples are usually pretty good. The publishers often pay me $100 or so to spend an afternoon or two reviewing a textbook and writing comments (incidentally, this is more effort than necessary to pass a fully accredited graduate level administration or education course)—not a good hourly wage, but as an academic I feel responsible for helping make these books as good as possible.

     Nevertheless, even with rapidly changing editions, students were selling their old books, and that cuts into publisher profits, profits that are never massive enough. Unfortunately, students are now viewed as cash cows, to be squeezed in every way possible, with no protection from administration, so a publisher has come up with an even more abusive plan to keep students from selling their old books.

     Aspen Publishing has deemed that students can still pay (nearly $200) for their textbook, but they won’t own it…the students will be forced to give back the book at the end of the semester.

--because students can still write in the books or whatever, they can’t be resold as new, so will be likely destroyed once returned. How obnoxiously wasteful…

     Now, back when administrators had human integrity and felt responsibility to the young under their care, there would be immediate outrage at such a proposition. An administration with integrity would simply tell the publisher “hey, you use those rules and we’ll simply ban your books from our school. We will not have our students mistreated in such a manner.”  Now, I’m not saying I’m for book-banning, students can still license the books if they want (I use the word “license” because they can’t really buy the books)…but the young are supposed to be protected from predators, not placed under their care.

Now, consider the seventeen-year-old customer against whom this predatory institution squares off. He comes loping to the bargaining table armed with about the same amount of guile that, a few years earlier, he brought to Santa’s lap in the happy holiday shopping center…

He knows enough about the world to predict the kind of work he’ll get with only a high school diploma in his pocket, but of the ways of the University he knows precious little. He is the opposite of a savvy consumer. And yet here he comes nevertheless, armed with the ability to pay virtually any price his dream school demands that he pay. All he needs to do is sign a student loan application, binding himself forever and inescapably with a financial instrument that he only dimly understands and that, thanks to the optimism of adolescence, he has not yet learned to fear.

     The above is a great description of the typical college student coming onto campus. Many are just barely outside of childhood. An adult with integrity, upon seeing a scheme to take advantage of a child, would vociferously complain of the iniquity here, and move to stop it.

     Alas, administration is completely silent on the matter.

     Of course they are.


  1. I noticed many of the things you mentioned during the years I was teaching.

    One problem I had was that none of the publishers had books that were exactly what I was looking for. Either they were oriented towards university undergrads or were at a level just above that of a colouring book.

    Often, the content changes between editions were minimal, but the real scandal was the added frippery that was often introduced. For example, new editions might include computer disks (floppies at first, CD-ROMs later) which were generally of no relevance to the course material I was teaching. Then came the change from black and white line sketches for diagrams to full-colour pictures. In some cases, the worked examples had lots of the latter, complete with actual pictures of the keys on the calculator that the students were supposed to press when completing the calculations. It was as if publishers really believed that the students were too dumb to figure that out by themselves. All of this added to the costs and, unfortunately, we were forced to buy those newer editions.

    But did publishers actually correct any errors that were found? In one case, no. I started teaching a certain course with the 2nd edition of the textbook. When I taught it for the last time, several years later, the 4th had come out. Changes between editions were minimal but certain glaring errors were copied from one edition to the next, despite the fact that we notified the publisher's representatives about it during that time.

    On the whole, it was a dreadful book, particularly as the way it handled the material was atrocious. However, we were stuck with using it year after year. Why? Because that's the one the students liked, even though we tried other titles, though finding one that adequately presented the material at the level they worked at was difficult.

  2. Having to return a book may not be enforceable but there might be a way to persuade the university or the professor to require that. However, potential sellers or buyers of used books would risk being sued, and that's where some legal enforcement could realistically happen (when a sale is made or attempted, not when the student simply keeps the book). Because of the illegal nature of the activity combined with the fact that a legal supply of books is available, some students would find buyers, but at reduced prices. While some professors would likely not care, it would be possible to use some kind of device attached to all legal copies and that expires after a few months (in theory, books without that would be banned from the classroom). I'm not even talking about tracking the actual location of the book because that seems exaggerated and people could just get rid of the tracking device. But then, over time, that could become more feasible.

  3. Professor "Doom", I read your articles enthusiastically whenever I come upon them. They are like a Light in the Darkness, exposing Deception (and the Deceivers) for what they are. No wonder they hate you!! All who are exposed to the TRUTH, are changed for it, even if by a tiny increment. Even the parasitic deceivers are changed a little. No wonder they don't want it available through you and others like you!! Please keep up the good work and remain Anonymous...

    1. Thanks; I'm not convinced I'm so hated...I barely register, I'm sure. I have no illusions about how long I'll remain anonymous if I ever I become even a minor irritant to the folks running these many scams.