Screwing Students Through Pointless Textbook Bundles

from the everyone-loves-bundles dept

While some schools and teachers are looking for ways to make education, and especially textbooks, cheaper for students, others seem bent on doing everything possible to keep prices artificially high. Because colleges essentially have the textbook market cornered, they can require students to purchase just about anything in order to bring in more revenue. Unfortunately for the students, this can mean increased costs and and annoyance with the process itself.

Enter Luke Thomas, who had a very annoying textbook situation in an English class. All Luke and his wife wanted to do was take an English class together. They figured that they could get by with a single textbook between the two of them, but things in college are never that easy. You see, the professor for their class required a specific book, which he had authored, as well as an one time use access code to an online discussion board. However, the only way to get that code was to buy a brand new textbook.

My wife and I were taking that same class, and we were unable to purchase an access code without purchasing two copies of the book, which was very upsetting. I asked the individuals working at the bookstore if they sold unbundled copies of the access code, and to my dismay, they did not.

Because buying two books for two people who lived together and took the class together was a pointless endeavor, Luke decided to take matters into his own hands. He contacted the service provider of the discussion board and was able to buy the code directly through them for $20 plus shipping. Yes, the code had to be physically shipped to him. Of course, this was an option that neither the professor nor the book store offered him to begin with.

As a former college student in this internet connected world, I am also aware of such shady textbook deals. One Trigonometry class I took required the purchase of a $75 access code to the online textbook and quizzes. While my course wasn't tied to a physical book, it did limit the end of semester cash that most students are used to getting as they sell off their books — something that schemes like this do not allow.

Of course Luke didn't let it end with him just buying his code and getting through the course. He also spoke to the head of the bookstore as well as researched the law behind such bundles. What he found was a treat for any school or professor that would attempt to do something like this in the future:

After researching this issue, there’s a federal law which requires the unbundling of textbooks. How often is this law enforced? I have no idea…

UNBUNDLING OF COLLEGE TEXTBOOKS FROM SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS.—A publisher that sells a college textbook and any supplemental material accompanying such college textbook as a single bundle shall also make available the college textbook and each supplemental material as separate and unbundled items, each separately priced.

Wow! Wouldn’t that be something to bring up to that professor and his supervisors? That is, if they will actually listen. However, there is also another path that might serve a student in getting a quick resolution to the matter of being forced to buy a new book to get such online materials: patent law. Perhaps this professor is unaware that his method of forcing students to buy a new book and prevent sharing has been patented. Wouldn't that patent showdown be a joy to watch unfold?

Lucky for us, there are plenty of people out there looking after the plight of the poor college student. Luke takes the time to highlight a few notables out there.

It looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, companies like Boundless Learning, Lore, and the plethora of ed-tech startups are seeking to disrupt these greedy giants. Go get em guys!

With all the attention that high college tuition prices get in the media, one would think that the textbook industry would be a prime target for an area to reduce the cost of an education for students. Sadly, the textbook industry gets a pass by most budget hawks as they tend to focus the majority of their attention on the sticker price of college. If they would expand their focus they could probably see a lot of room for improvement in additional costs outside tuition. Until then, good luck paying for all those books you may or may not need.

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Comments on “Screwing Students Through Pointless Textbook Bundles”

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Anonymous Coward says:

it is now more important to continue to pay the publisher and the author than it is to ensure people get an education. is there nothing that greed and stupidity doesn’t infiltrate? does no one ever think outside the box, to the future, when there will be a few wealthy people but everyone else in the world is as thick as fuck because they couldn’t afford to buy the books needed to get educated? sounds like a good world is on it’s way. still, at least everyone will be able to watch movies, even tho’ they wont be able to understand what is going on!

Haywood (profile) says:

Re: Re:

You put a lot more weight on education than others might. Personally, I made my way through life (and found my way home most nights) fine with a high school education. I did return after 50 & got a degree, with honors, and while there were a lot of blanks filled in, higher education isn’t the end all, and be all.

Back on topic though; the campus book stores are more of a racket than a service. They have you by the short hairs and know it.

abc gum says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

“Some of the most ignorant people I have ever known are also some of the highest educated that I have ever known. If one doubts the preceding all one must do is look at the elite who populate government.”

Just thought I’d point out a few things.
1) being highly educated does not make one “elite”
2) everyone is ignorant in their own way(s)
3) bigotry is not a subset of ignorance
4) politics attracts a certain type of personality
5) a better educated populace is better for the nation

el_segfaulto (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I’ve always thought of it this way: If you’ve ever listened to a post-game NFL interview, you can simply hear how dumb some of those guys are. Then you realize that the vast majority of them have college educations.

I’m 31 with 3.5 degrees and would go back to school in a heartbeat if it were financially feasible. But I’ll be the first to acknowledge that college isn’t for everybody, especially those taking $50K in loans to get a degree in art history only to find themselves working at Starbucks when everything is said and done.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: these 2 are just the early warning system

due to the greed again, that as far as i recall, was started by game retailers, you cant sell anything on or buy anything 2nd hand without paying for a new code. think of what would have been lost, what we would probably never have been aware of if there had never been a 2nd hand market!

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: these 2 are just the early warning system

I had that problem with a couple of books. The online content was worth it but it was annoying that I couldn’t sell back the books. One way I found to offset this cost is that Amazon allows for renting of text books. Once I am done I print off a shipping label and ship it back. It was far cheaper then buying new.

abc gum says:

In many industries there are organization wide written codes of ethics which every employee is made to read and sign. These manifestations proclaim conflict of interest shall be avoided, I imagine that universities and colleges across the globe also have such decrees.

So a prof, or the college, decide which textbook(s) the class(s) need. Is it any surprise that they chose products from which they receive payment? How is this not a conflict of interest, a violation of their oath? I guess those ethics are only flashed around when it suits their purpose and ignored when they do not.

abc gum says:

Re: Re: Re:

One could argue that a particular prof authored text is actually the best available for the class in question, however – the act of requiring an access code to online content which is tied to the text purchase sort of negates this argument. They had a “good thing” and now their overreach has brought it into the light … hopefully it is squashed like a bug.

Tom NJ says:

Actual Human Prof.

I had a math teacher in grad school who used his own book. He only had one edition published in the late 70’s. Twenty years later he still used it. There were tons of used copies for $5 and a new one was $10. He did charge us $1 at the first class for the list of all of the edits and that was to only cover his photo copying. After 20 years of using this book there were only 2 dozen or so changes/additions. Great class, great guy.

Anonymous Coward says:

I have several degrees and thought I knew the ins and outs of every parasitic money making scheme that goes along with college until I saw what my son went through. They are being required to buy apps for specific mobile devices. So he bought an old android phone without a phone or data plan in order to get the app that, coincidentally also unlocked his textbook bundle. This is in a nursing college and they try to frame it as embracing technology. I think they have just raised their monopoly to the digital age.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I have several degrees from Florida state universities.

In the late 80’s and before one of the most egress schemes there was the Florida Public Interest Research Group (FPIRG).

Initially all students were required to join the membership fee being automatically added to one’s college tuition cost. No exceptions.

After several court cases one was allowed to opp-out. That is the fee was automatically added to the bill and was only removed if a formal complaint in letter form was submitted and approved allowing removal.

Later the system was changed to opp-in. One could request to join by simply checking a box to join, which most did due to the wording and format of the payment bill, not realizing that they did not have to pay several add-on fees.

Problem was that FPIRG was a very far left (almost communist similar to ACORN) political whose whole agenda was to place far left politicians in power.

Anonymous Coward says:

“UNBUNDLING OF COLLEGE TEXTBOOKS FROM SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS.?A publisher that sells a college textbook and any supplemental material accompanying such college textbook as a single bundle shall also make available the college textbook and each supplemental material as separate and unbundled items, each separately priced.”

So what they will do is offer the ala carte items like the access code for $1 less than the bundle price and your screwed either way.

Justin Johnson (JJJJust) (profile) says:

“Wouldn’t that be something to bring up to that professor and his supervisors? That is, if they will actually listen.”

Nah, once you find law that supports you, it’s time to go straight to their general counsel and say: “It’s either give me what I want now or have a court tell you to give me what I want AND pay me a few thousand later, your choice.”

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

“Hey, I live in the same house as my wife, and we only have one car, so I guess we only need one drivers license, we can share it, right?”

I bet you buy 2 DVDs every time you watch a movie with your wife, right?

The only thing that is a course requirement (for a passing grade) is learning the material.

btr1701 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

> Some things are a requirement. This is a
> course requirement. Next.

Did you read the bit about the federal law which makes these kinds of mandatory bundles illegal? I would say the US Code is a pretty compelling requirement. Or are students the only ones who have to obey requirements?

Apparently requirements are only requirements when you agree with them.


Anonymous Coward says:

I’m a professor at a large state university. The textbook scam has troubled me for decades. My imperfect solution: For the past 10 years, I haven’t assigned a “required” textbook in my classes.

I make recommendations for texts that I think provide particularly clear explanations of certain problems or that cover important things that I don’t have time to cover in class. And the students who are genuinely interested in mastering the content often buy (and keep) these supplemental books. But I don’t feel comfortable holding students accountable for material that I don’t personally teach them. And, as a result, there is little reason for them to be required to buy a specific, latest edition of X with new color photos and secret web pages. Any relatively up-to-date book can supplement the course well enough.

I know there are courses for which this strategy would not work well (e.g., English Literature), so I wouldn’t recommend this as a general solution to the textbook problem. But I would encourage other professors to think twice before “assigning” a textbook for a class.

Peter Nelson says:

Let me tell you a good story

No, really – it is a GOOD story… Of one Professor Purvis, at Harvey Mudd College down in Los Angeles…

He teaches Biology… a required course there… and the textbook (which is fantastic by the way), is one that he authored….

At the beginning of the class – he has everyone in the auditorium line up, holding their text books… and everyone who has one, he hands them $3… which is his cut of the sale of the textbook…

So he doesn’t make a penny off his own students. Still remember him 15 years later as one of the best professors I ever had.

– Peter

JP says:

Who's to blame?

I’m not sure I understand if everyone is directing their ire towards the correct entity here… As I see things, the correct entity who should be ashamed of this is the college and their bookstore (assuming the bookstore is owned by the college, as most are).

From what I can tell, the book publisher is following the law perfectly by offering the code directly. It’s silly that it has to be “shipped,” but they’re still complying. Therefore the book and code are available as unbundled items. I think it’s reasonable for the publisher to charge something for access to the online forum, as undoubtedly it does cost them something to manage and maintain. (We can argue over whether it’s worth $20 for a semester’s worth of forum access since the true cost to run the forum is likely much less, but there is some cost to maintain it…)

I don’t know whether the professor himself has any say in how the bookstore carries the book, or what the bookstore offers for used items… But my guess is that the professor doesn’t have much influence. (If he does, shame on him.)

Therefore, we’re back to the bookstore. Now, the law doesn’t state that the bookstore must carry the unbundled version of the items, so I’m not sure there’s any legal issue to discuss. (unless we can show some collusion between the bookstore and publisher for the bookstore to agree to not carry the unbundled items…) In any case, it really seems like the bookstore probably should bear the brunt of the blame for this situation…….

And to the chuckle-head who said that he and his wife should only need one drivers license.. Go re-read the article and think before you post. Nobody ever said that the couple should only need one access code.

David (profile) says:

They do it all the time

I went back to school last year for a culinary program. The charged $50 for the e-book for every class, even if you did not use it. (I bought physical copies of the books). On top of it, the $50 was for a 5-year license, not for a lifetime one, so the folks who had the e-book only can’t continue to refer to the book after that period. I have been out of school for 9 months, and have used my school books many times. (I even refer to the e-book, having both is handy. I have pulled up recipes from the supermarket when shopping). I would hate to lose them, but I will after 5 years.

JS says:

Small problem there

A publisher that sells a college textbook and any supplemental material accompanying such college textbook as a single bundle shall also make available the college textbook and each supplemental material as separate and unbundled items, each separately priced.

A publisher must provide the unbundled items. It does not say that the bookstore must sell the unbundled items. Students do not typically buy directly from the publisher.

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