My church will be giving scholarships to its graduating seniors this May. The checks won't be large, but they're a little bit more than a trip to Burger King. Our standard joke when receiving the applications is to say something like, "Well, at least it'll buy a textbook." The same joke about the same amount used to be made when I was the one filling out the applications, only then we said "textbooks." The problem of excessive textbook prices -- for books which might get used only in part -- is not new, nor is it getting better. Even the electronic and digital revolutions seem not to have been able to bring it down.
This item at Big Think notes how a phenomenon called "disruption" is sometimes required in order to fix broken systems or move them out of ruts they happen to be in. The disruption might create a new system, but it might also prompt an existing system to make needed changes.
A good historic example of a disruption is Martin Luther. Because of his protests against some pretty un-churchy activities, several new churches began, all distinct from the Roman Catholic church that dominated Western Europe. We call this the Reformation. But sometimes overlooked is the Roman Catholic response to Luther's criticisms. Church leadership found that even a heretic can be right twice a day and cleaned up several of the problems against which Luther had spoken in what's usually called the "Counter-Reformation." The German monk and his church door vandalism brought about many of the changes he said were needed, even though he himself found it necessary to move on from Rome's oversight.
As Robert Montenegro's article points out, Uber helped bring change to the taxi industry it sought to subvert. Once the cab companies didn't succeed in getting the ride-share operation run out of business, they wound up adopting some of its features in order to compete and stay viable.
Montenegro shows that this disruption has yet to reach the college textbook industry, to the dismay of student vertebrae and parental wallets everywhere. The Samuelson-Nordhaus Economics is in its 19th edition, published in 2009, weighs in at three and a half pounds and runs 744 pages. It's been revised, updated and reformatted, but it's the same book that's been used since 1948, and I would welcome examples of any other ways in which college in 2016 is the same as it was in 1948.
The problem, Montenegro says, is that while all of the information found in these topless towers of paper is readily available in free or less expensive versions elsewhere, it's not in a combined format. He says it will take someone preparing a great textbook, marketing it and getting it adopted by professors and thus used by students, for free. Once that happens, then it could be viewed on a subscription basis or even offered at no cost so students could access it. Traditional textbook publishers would have to adapt and that could bring their prices down and options up also.
But the burr under that saddle is the reality that textbook companies and other folks involved make a lot of money selling their wares, and have a lot of money invested in the current model. They're chary of kissing either sack of cash goodbye. While smaller schools and liberal arts colleges across the country are having trouble making ends meet, the major universities of our nation have learned one economic lesson well: How to turn your money into their money. And they seem unwilling to test other options anytime soon.