Endlessly mounting tuition isn't the only factor turning a college degree into a lifetime of student loan payments. Textbook prices
are keeping pace with tuition, both of which are charging far ahead of inflation and wages.
There's no monopoly on the textbook market, but over 80% of it is controlled by the top four
publishers (Pearson, Cengage, Wiley and McGraw-Hill
). This control gives them enough leverage to maintain a 65% gross margin on their offerings.
The newest faces in the textbook world aren't making anything better. EDMC (Education Management Corporation), which operates several for-profit post-secondary schools (Argosy, The Art Institutes, Brown Mackie College) has its own e-textbook publishing arm, Digital Bookshelf, which handles all of its e-book offerings. As recently as last year,
some were hoping the move to digital books would bring these prices down. Instead, digital offerings are arriving locked down, requiring students to purchase access codes which prevent the sharing of books and eliminates the resale market.
Here's what happens when a well-respected instructor attempts to push back against EDMC
It's a common scenario and most college students appreciate a teacher who's looking for ways to deliver a quality education without requiring them to make unnecessary book purchases. Unfortunately, in the case of Mike Tracy, a highly-regarded animator who'd been teaching at the Art Institute of California-Orange County for the past 11 years, refusing to make students buy an e-book they don't need may have cost him his job.
Tracy posted on his Facebook page that he's "been in a dispute" with the school for several months "over their policy of mandatory e-textbooks in classes where their inclusion seems arbitrary, inappropriate and completely motivated by profit.
This isn't just Tracy's opinion. The post also cites EDMC's own Faculty Federation as being opposed to the strong-arm tactics being deployed:
EDMC continues to insist on e-books only and wants sole discretion over what e-books are used, compromising faculty independence and expertise in choosing best resources for class.
Not only are instructors not allowed to opt-out of this "service," students are forced to pay extra for versions they may not even need.
Art Institute requires students to pay a $50-$75 fee to download a temporary copy of the e-textbook from the Digital Bookshelf. Even if they want to buy a hard copy of the text, they still have to fork over the money for a digital version.
Note that this is a temporary copy, so there's no passing it on to another classmate who might be taking the course in the next semester. This also prevents any sort of resale/trading taking from taking place. One of the slim advantages of purchasing physical copies was the ability to resell the books to help offset the costs of the next set of curriculum. The textbook publishers have turned that into a complete farce by adding minor revisions to their line of books as often as possible, changing a few homework problems or pushing text back and forth to force re-pagination. Many books are outdated before the next year of schooling even starts, turning a $150 investment into a doorstop. Going electronic-only, tied to pass codes and non-refundable fees eliminates any further recoupment for the students.
Beyond the ugliness of these mercenary tactics is the fact that what EDMC is doing is, if not actually illegal, certainly operating in a very gray area. The Higher Education Opportunity Act
(passed in 2008) states that textbook publishers must "unbundle" their core educational content from optional add-ons like study guides or homework systems. It could be argued that an electronic version of the same textbook is not an "optional add-on," but one could also certainly argue that the option to buy either/or when it comes to digital and physical books should still be left to the students' or instructors' preference, rather than subjecting students to mandatory, non-refundable fees.
EDMC should be a bit more careful about operating at the fringes of federal law. It's currently being sued by the Department of Justice for illegal recruiting and false claims
The government's complaint says the company, which offers classes online and at 105 locations in 32 states and Canada, repeatedly made false statements to conceal its practices and receive $11 billion in federal and state financial aid – nearly all of the company's revenue. The complaint alleges that student enrollment was the sole focus of its compensation system, and the company instructed recruiters to use high-pressure sales techniques like playing on an applicant's psychological vulnerabilities and inflating claims of career placement opportunities to enroll students regardless of their qualifications.
Beyond the resale blockage and rent-seeking is the outrageous idea that somehow courses should have mandatory textbooks, thus forcing instructors to teach their classes in whatever direction the curriculum provider steers them, rather than being able to impart knowledge in a way that caters to the instructor and the students.
There's no way that locking your faculty and students into purchasing and utilizing textbooks from a single provider is ever going to work for the benefit of anyone but the company being favored and the administration members who made this exclusive contract a reality. EDMC can have it both ways for the moment, operating both a set of schools and providing its own exclusive conduit for instructional material.
As for Mike Tracy, his students have banded together to get him reinstated. They've also started a petition over at change.org
, asking for the Art Institute to amend its textbook policy to put curriculum selection back in the hands of the instructors. It currently has over 3,500 signatures.