Friday, September 12, 2014

College Students are Cash Cows

By Professor Doom

     I’ve certainly done my share of slamming community colleges for their ruthless exploitation of kids. I’ve not given universities a free pass, but it’s been a while since I’ve highlighted that university administration is not above exploiting the vulnerable, either.

     The textbook scam, where students pay hideously exorbitant fees for books that are filled almost entirely with public domain information, can only exist with the help of university administration, and today’s little essay highlights it.

     It’s the modern world, after all, and the amount of information, quality information, available online is more than sufficient for just about any undergraduate college course. Many professors, especially the ones with enough integrity to realize the young are not to be exploited, try to help their students save a fortune by directing them to free (or at least much cheaper) sources of information.
    Upon hearing that students weren’t being squeezed of every last bit of money, and that there were human beings trying to help the young, university administrators at George Washington University were appalled leapt into action in a letter to faculty:

“…we want to remind you of the university’s contractual obligation of the operator of [the campus bookstore]…”

     One might think academic freedom might protect faculty from telling students “hey, you can get that book for $50 cheaper on Amazon” or “there’s a free website that we’ll use instead of the $200 textbook”, but, apparently not. In fact, administration referenced the Federal Higher Education Opportunity Act in its quest to screw students in every possible way get faculty to only direct students to the school’s bookstore. Who knew federal laws could be perverted so? Oh wait, this always happens.
     I almost managed to go for two weeks without saying “I can’t make this stuff up”, but higher education is so insane that even my active imagination is no match for the antics here.

“…alternative vendors may not be endorsed, licensed, or otherwise approved or supported by the university or its faculty…”

     Naturally, saying “here’s how you can save $50” would count as endorsement in the eyes of demented administration, and faculty that did so would risk punishment (perhaps even psychological evaluation?). The administration rationalizes this behavior by pointing out that certain financial aid students are given vouchers that are only good for purchases at the hideously overpriced company store campus bookstore.
     The letter concludes with a hysterically insulting reference to “the partnership” between the university and the faculty, which is why the faculty should slavishly follow administrative demands or be beaten. That’s how a partnership works, right?
     Faculty at the institution protested, and the university decided to back off its ridiculous attempt to claim monopoly rights over the abuse of children its students. Good for them. I guess. The fact still remains: administration actually thinks so little of students, is so eager to suck them dry in every possible way, that they tried this.
     When I first started my blog I advanced a notion that the hideous Penn State sex scandal was only a symptom of the moral degeneracy of the rulers of higher education. It isn’t simply that these rulers will casually overlook a decade-long abuse (and “abuse” is a very gentle word for it) of children in the showers in the name of growth (i.e., profits for the university)…these rulers, their avarice utterly out of control, will stop at nothing to squeeze every last dollar from every source, and that totally includes the young people coming on campus.
    Their greed has been restrained quite a bit by the sheer resistance of our institutions to change. It’s taken decades for higher education to go from “pretty much legitimate” to “pretty much a scam”, but I fear there is now so much momentum that our current system is beyond saving. The resistance to change that slowed higher education’s descent into degeneracy implies the existence of a momentum that can’t stop that descent once it’s well on its way.
    That’s a shame, because most of the real knowledge breakthroughs of the 20th century happened in settings of higher education. It’s a shame to see a system that did much good, now nearly totally perverted towards evil, with only minimal hope that it can be saved.
     I’ll still try, however.


  1. I taught drafting for several years. Back then, it was the conventional method of paper, pencil, and instruments. The students were required to use T-squares, compasses, and triangles and, when convenient, templates for common shapes.

    The bookstore at the institution where I taught sold all that gear, but, after finding out how over-priced it was, I discouraged my students from buying it there. I also discouraged them from going to stationery stores because, since those items were only part of a much larger inventory, the prices there were also horrendous. Instead, I suggested that they go to a drafting supply store and there was one in our area of the city. Not only were the prices there bound to be more reasonable, because that was their business, but if one required something the store didn't stock, the item could be ordered.

    There was another reason for doing that. Most of my students would go into industry and, chances are, their employers would be dealing with stores like that, so I thought it was a good idea that they become familiar with supplier such as them.

    One of the problems with that bookstore, as well as the one at my university alma mater (which was located on the other side of the city), was that it didn't just sell books. Those stores became, to borrow a phrase from the TV show "The Beverly Hillbillies", "what not" shops. They didn't just sell books and stationery supplies that the students needed. They sold institutional paraphernalia (T-shirts were just the beginning). They sold magazines and the latest pot-boiler paperback novels. They sold all manner of junk (one year, the one at the institution I taught at stocked the notorious singing fish). They sometimes sold tickets to concerts and major league sports games. You name it, chances are they might have had that stuff in stock at one time or another.

    And, of course, those bookstores had to make a profit.

    I'm sure one reason my alma mater's bookstore gouged students was that it was located well away from major shopping centres, thereby taking advantage of its location and the convenience of access to its goods. However, the one at the place where I used to teach had no such excuse. It was within walking distance of stores where many of those items could be purchased. It wouldn't surprise me if it over-charged because it could get away with it.

    Now that I'm out of the educational system, it's no longer a problem for me.

  2. I've seen cases where the prescribed text *doesn't even get used* by the course instructor.

    With regard to math, all the calc texts are the same, all the linear algebra texts are the same, all the college algebra books are the same. Why insist on the current edition of some cloned text?

    1. I've noticed this even between different authors' books. The problem sets, examples, & word problems are usually different, so is the order of some of the material - but by & large it's all the same stuff year after year. This makes me wonder what makes an institution choose one book over another. My shelf has 6 college algebra/precalculus/algebra & trig books I got dirt cheap over the last 2 years just to compare & there really isn't much difference ultimately. Some are prettier, lighter, etc.

      One thing I do wonder about is how the teaching of this material has changed over the decades. Like if we look at the same class on college algebra for instance and compare 1975, 1985, 1995, 2005, & now. I know any problems that involve Internet or Microsoft Excel usage likely weren't on the table in 1975 & 1985 but I wouldn't be surprised if not much has changed lesson-wise in the last 20 years.

      Any experienced teachers or alumni wish to comment?

    2. Well, every few years a committee gets together and reviews books...we're sort of obligated to pick a new book. At the bare minimum, we're forced to use the new edition (since the old edition is no longer available after a few years).

      As far as the teaching of the material, please search my blog using "unhinged"...many colleges now make students buy the books (or at least say as much on the syllabus), but then barely use them, since using college books would cut into retention.

    3. Most of the courses I used to teach didn't change much during the time I was there. Some might, for example, introduce certain software programs but, on the whole, the course content remained the same.

      What was different, however, was how the material was presented and increasing use of colour graphics. I remember seeing textbooks in which the examples didn't just show the students which expressions and variable values to use, they also showed which calculator keys they had to press (yup, even the numbers!).

      It was nonsense like the latter that made textbooks horrendously expensive over the years.

    4. One of the problems I faced as an instructor was to find a decent textbook for whatever course I was teaching. Often, the selection offered by the publishers was dreadful as the books were at the extreme levels of difficulty. They were either written like colouring books or were meant for university courses. There was nothing that suited the level of the tech school I was at.

      Often, I would pick one of those books but I'd choose my examples or exam questions from other texts I had. The students were, often, unhappy with that but, considering what the textbooks had for material, I didn't have much choice.

      One alternative was to write a publication specifically for that course and the institution loved that. It could crank them out like doughnuts and over-charge for them. However, writing them was often a headache as administrators were always pushing to have them ready for the upcoming term. That often led to errors and, often, those publications would go through several editions before all the bugs were worked out.

      One problem with them was that those publications were often light on content and had a limited re-sale value as they were geared to a specific course at that institution. However, I'm sure that no one in charge there ever worried about that.

  3. When I was a college senior, I tutored students in World History. The freshmen got the newest edition of the book I had as a freshmen and I wondered if I needed the new book. The new book was shinier with more colored text, but it was the same as the previous edition. The expensive and never-used CD was attached, of course. The professors never used those and the students never did. The CDs are just another way of price gouging.

    Has there been any cases of textbook publishers providing kickbacks to college administrators and/or professors? I can see the potential for corruption.

    1. During my time in the post-secondary system, both as a student and as an instructor, I never heard of an instance of palms being greased when it came to purchasing books. However, that's not to say that it didn't happen.

      While I was teaching, I dealt with a handful of publisher representatives. Some of them often had more than one company as a client, partly because educational publication is a rather small market. In addition, many of those firms were related to each other by either being subsidiaries or divisions of a parent company.

      The result was that there was usually a limited selection of books that are available. Many of them came with all the frippery that you've already noted, which often went unused. All that stuff is like chrome trim on a 4 x 4. It looks nice when the vehicle after it's been washed and waxed, but it's of limited use when driving off-road.

    2. There have been a few "scandals" with faculty, but nothing major. If a faculty member decides to write a whole textbook, you kinda hope the institution would help him out a bit by using the book at that institution. But we're really only talking a few hundred bucks a semester extra for faculty like this.

      Admin, of course, do the ripping hand over fist, but it's not the scandal it should be. The scale is more like tens of thousands of dollars a semester (really depends on size of the institution), but that's hardly a drop in the bucket compared to other forms of administrative theft.