Government-Funded Textbooks: Let's Not And Say We Did

from the bad-ideas dept

One of the retorts I sometimes hear when I criticize our current system of overly broad copyright protection is that the only alternative is government funding of copyrighted works. This is not, of course, what most of us are advocating, and there’s every reason to think that a properly balanced and limited system of copyright protection (along with some clever business models) can create plenty of incentives to produce creative works without asking the taxpayer to pay for them. However, every once in a while you come across someone who really does want the government to fund creative works. Dean Baker, for example. is pushing his plan to have the government pay for college textbooks that would then be placed in the public domain for public consumption.

This is a bad idea for a bunch of reasons. For starters, there’s no reason to think that government-funded textbooks would be any good. Financing textbooks by selling them to students ensures that textbook publishers have an incentive to produce books that meet the needs of students, or at least their professors, and to improve textbook quality over time. In contrast, if textbooks are financed by taxpayers, the textbooks that get produced are likely to be determined more by politics and bureaucracy than by the needs of the customers. The result is likely to be a lot of mediocre textbooks focused on topics that federal officials think are needed, rather than what will actually get used. Second, there’s a basic issue of equity here. College students tend to come from families that are wealthier, on average, than the general public. Less than half of young people attend four-year colleges. So it seems a little perverse to tax everybody in order to subsidize the textbook purchases of relatively privileged college students. Means-tested financial aid programs are much better at reaching students who really need the help. Finally, it’s worth asking whether we want to take the risk of politicizing the content of college curricula. We already have enough politics involved in deciding what goes into textbooks used in public high schools, which are publicly-funded. Do we really want the federal government put in charge of deciding what kind of textbooks the country’s college students need?

What’s really needed, I think, is to find ways to leverage the web for lower-cost distribution of instructional materials. There’s no reason to think that college students 20 years from now will still be getting course information from giant paper books. Whether textbooks are replaced by Wikipedia-style collaborative textbook projects, by companies selling site licenses to websites full of instructional materials, by ad-supported instructional websites, or by some business model nobody’s thought of yet, there’s every reason to think competition from the web will revolutionize the textbook market in the coming years and give both instructors and students more choices about how information is disseminated. We ought to let that process play itself out, and not get the government involved in deciding what should be in our textbooks.

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Comments on “Government-Funded Textbooks: Let's Not And Say We Did”

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Joe says:

The submitter says “College students tend to come from families that are wealthier, on average, than the general public. Less than half of young people attend four-year colleges. So it seems a little perverse to tax everybody in order to subsidize the textbook purchases of relatively privileged college students.”

I’m not entirely sure this is completely thought through. I would believe that the majority of college students are not attending four year universities, but instead are pursuing two year degrees at smaller community colleges with the option to transfer. The price of textbooks at community colleges can be as high as tuition. In many cases, the textbooks are the same books used at high priced universities.

Perhaps if the books were priced lower (though not government subsidized) more people would be financially capable of pursuing higher education.

Tim Lee (user link) says:

Re: Re:

By definition, students in 2-year colleges are going to be in school for half as long as students in 4-years college, so subsidizing everyone’s textbook consumption is an extremely inefficient way to help poor kids in 2-year colleges. If the government’s going to be in the business of helping kids with the costs of 2-year colleges, the way to do that would a means-tested program of financial aid, not indiscriminate subsidies for everyone’s textbook purchases.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Gov't Funded Textbooks

It could be but if they had a committee of University Professors select the content, it really wouldn’t be any difference then what they do now, it would just be on a national level. Also if church schools, etc could still have their own book, no one would be required to use the govenment one.

Daniel (profile) says:

Colleges and textbook sales.

You might consider that a fair number of two year college students come from wealthier than average families as well – bargain hunting is not exclusively a poor man’s pursuit. Also, while a substantial number of people do attend two year colleges, four year colleges can easily still sell more textbooks simply because people attend them for about twice as long (and that’s not counting the people who attend a four year university after getting the basics done at the local community college).

As far as pricing books lower, the best chance of that happening is to introduce some form of competition in textbook sales – I personally like the idea of virtual books being offered ala’s Kindle or something similar.

Anonymous Coward says:

ASU fan

Appalachian State University (three times I-AA football champs) used a book rental system for years to help cut the cost of books for students. (Off topic but I thought I say it anyway)

There isn’t any reason to assume that government text books would be inferior to private industry created books. Conversely, since most schools buy from the same publisher and salesperson year after year anyway, it pays the publisher to cut cost and do as little editing as possible. From what I’ve seen with text books they all just hash out the same facts anyway. Is there really that much difference in one history or math book compared to another? The incentive for the people writing government text books would be to keep their jobs. Actually if there was a free government text book, private business would have an incentive to make an outstanding text book that schools would want instead of the government sponsored one because it was much, much better (just be sure to take out the kickback to the person making the decision). Text books are kind of stupid anyway because electronic readers would be much cheaper counting printing, shipping, storage, etc, but if we are going to have them let’s get them in the $20 price range instead of the $100 one.

Eric the Grey says:

Save the Govt funds for tuition.

I would much rather see competition lower the prices of books and see the Government step in to allow more middle- to lower-class students afford college without going so deeply into debt that they cannot make ends meet once they graduate.

Competition needs to come in the form of not only lower prices, but alternatives to paper books. E-books that are readable on devices like the Kindle or similar would be the biggest step in my opinion, but they need to be adopted by the colleges in question as well.


Katie says:

I’m a college student at a 2 year university looking to transfer to a 4-year university to finish my BS. Every semester, I spend roughly $300 on classes and $600 on books.

I love the Kindle idea. If I could get a textbook for $25 to $50 from Amazon on a Kindle, that would easily justify the $400 upfront cost.

I also like the idea about putting the stuff online, but web-based school services thus far have been horribly designed and need a serious rethink. Take a look at Blackboard and you’ll see my meaning. It’s hideous. It’s slow. It borders on unusable.

This talk of average income is kind of irrelevant. Average income in my area is below what is necessary to survive. My family is above average income, but they don’t have any savings and they can still barely afford to pay bills. My mom provides me with housing. Everything else, I work for. Food, gas, phone, insurance, school… you name it.

Around here, my situation is way above average. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not upset at my family for not being able to afford to save money for me, or anything ridiculous like that, but it does make reading comments like these a bit unpleasant. =)

It’s worth noting that 90% of college students accept some kind of financial aid – be it loans, scholarships, grants, or what have you. I would only count the other 10% as “privileged.”

Now onto the meaty part: This government funding of text books business is despicable. I’d rather pay $200 for a calculus book than get it for free if I could keep the government out of the equation. I don’t think the government has any nefarious interests in brainwashing college students, but I know it wants to dumb down education to the lowest common denominator.

Look at the No Child Left Behind act, the most repulsive thing to happen to education since Kansas tried to ban science. NCLB says, in a nutshell, “Let’s hold the whole class back for the sake of the one idiot who doesn’t care and won’t be made to care no matter how badly the teacher tries.”

I’m glad I made it out of high school before that took effect. I’m not interested in receiving a circumcised education just because somebody else is. That’s ridiculous and counterproductive to educating a society.

The government should be a lean organization operating on a meager income and dedicated primarily to bettering society, not the huge, scheming, war-mongering, wasteful monstrosity it has become. I don’t see why, as the Sprint commercial suggests, the world couldn’t be governed by a roomful of fire fighters. We’d probably be a lot better off if politics didn’t involve so many politicians.

comboman says:

Textbooks are not a free market

Financing textbooks by selling them to students ensures that textbook publishers have an incentive to produce books that meet the needs of students, or at least their professors, and to improve textbook quality over time.

Your statement would be true if textbooks were a free market, but unfortunately they are not. If I’m taking a college course in statistics, I can’t go down to Borders and buy whatever statistics text I want; I have to buy the one the professor uses. More and more often, that text is one that the professor himself has written and creates a captive market for. And because the run is so small (no one not taking the course would buy his shitty book), the cost is high. And of course, there has to be a new edition every year to discourage reselling of used text books. Government-funded, nationally-standardized textbooks don’t sound like such a bad idea to me.

Christoph says:

Re: Textbooks are not a free market

Couldn’t have said it better! College text books are the biggest cam going!

My son has found the perfect antidote: He waits a few weeks to see which “required” or recommended books are actually used in class, and which of those in fact have useful content. More often than not the books aren’t needed to follow along and get decent grades, so he often doesn’t buy anything at all. Score one for him!

Lance (user link) says:

Re: Textbooks are not a free market

I tend to agree that this point (that the college textbook market is not a “free market”) is critical. It’s much closer to a monopoly, with the professor holding all the power over what book(s) will be bought, and, since the professor often requires his or her own book for the course, the professor controls the price as well. If the professor has decided to try to make a huge profit off the sales of his/her textbook (and the endless new editions), there’s not much anyone can do about it.

I’m most hopeful about the MakeTextbooksAffordable campaign, as it offers professors an alternative to the primary option they’ve had up to this point, i.e., the option offered to them by the major (for profit) textbook publishers. If professors are willing to consider alternative models (and forgo the textbook profits they would otherwise be making on the backs of their students), they have an opportunity to create a system that can work better for everyone. (It reminds me of the situation in the digital music market which was ushered in by the internet and Napster.)

Thom says:


You are so wrong on this one Timothy. THE problem with textbooks is that they rewrite new editions so often JUST to sell more texts. The vast majority of textbooks, especially in undergraduate level courses, can be used for years – some for decades – without change.

I don’t think the government needs to produce texts, but I certainly think limiting textbook prices is in line.

Dean Baker says:


Glad to see you pick up on my proposal. Let me make a couple of quick points.

First, we already subsidize college through loans, direct aid, and direct funding (state universities). So, if you object to college aid because it benefits the well-off, you have a lot to yell about already. Furthermore, since the aid is generally based on total costs (including textbooks), the prospect of getting cheap or low-cost textbooks might actually be a money saver. The money involved, by my calculation, would be very small, about 0.01 percent of the federal budget.

Second, I propose having the money funneled through private contractors (read the proposal). That would allow competitive bidding and an evaluation after the fact of what was produced. If no one ever used the textbooks developed by a particular publisher, presumably they would never get another cent of public funding.

Finally, since there is nothing in my scheme to preclude private textbook book publishers from continuing to produce textbooks, we would be allowing the market to decide which textbooks to use. People would still have the option to spend $150-$200 to buy a book by some highly promoted honcho, or they could get a book produced through the publicly funded system that can be downloaded for free. Let the market decide.

Lance (user link) says:

Re: (Dean Baker's comments)

Special thanks and shout out to Dean Baker for his thinking and writing about alternative economic models, and to Tim for highlighting them in this post. I don’t always agree with Dean’s ideas, but he was one of the first people I ever read who was writing about the problems of some of our current economic models, and suggesting alternatives that might work better (much like the folks at Techdirt).

Duane (profile) says:

government produced textbooks

I’m not exactly endorsing anything here, but don’t all the lower grade schools (1-12) get government funded textbooks? I guess maybe it’s your local school district, but that’s government…

Maybe if the government paid for all college books as well, you’d get some standardization. For example, if the college kids in (name of state you hate form some irrational reason) had to study from the same books as (name of state you like for some equally irrational reason) then maybe the net effect would be positive.

Obviously the grade schools aren’t a sterling example of this, because of the wide variance from state to state, but this could be a new start for them as well.

AJ says:

Where are the ‘electronic’ textbooks? Most college students have computers/laptops.

I’ve noticed since my kids are in college that they sell new versions of textbooks almost EVERY year. I suppose that’s a strategy for shutting down the used textbook business. So, we’re stuck buying new textbooks for HUGE sums of money.

There should be more competition, but unfortunately, the existing publishers have driven most of the competition out of the market.

Richard says:

Textbook Publishing

I don’t know that much about the industry, but I was wondering if government isn’t already paying for all those textbooks anyways. I know for a fact that most of my college textbooks (I assume the same of K-12 textbooks), they’re written by college professors. A good number of these professors work for public universities, which receive a significant portion of their funding from guess who…the gov’t! Even private universities get lots of tax breaks/other funding from taxpayers. These professors, who sometimes have little time to meet with students, thus hire assistants to handle all the questions, etc. are receiving a salary paid for, effectively by us. They spend who knows what portion of their time, writing this textbook, that they will then sell to a publishing company that will pay them royalties, knowing that they can turn around and sell their work to their indirect employer…the gov’t (I say indirect because you have so many levels, fed/state/local, etc.). But at the end of the day, its still the taxpayer that has to buy all these textbooks, that were more than likely written by a professor that is already on the taxpayer’s payroll!! Then the publisher has the gall to charge exorbitant prices, because as so many have written here, there is little competition, and these publishers lobby local districts very hard for their contracts since each signing is a boon!

I don’t know what is the solution, I just feel like we’re getting hoodwinked by the publishing industry!

korgan says:

try eCampus!!

have you ever tried out for buying, renting, and selling books? I tried chegg and was having problems so I thought I would try something else out. a friend told me about ecampus and I loved it! the prices are already cheaper and plus she gave me her code EE15007 and it saved me 5% on top of that. you should try it out!!

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