Upcoming Cheaper Textbook Options

Nimasha Fernando


Summary: With every new semester comes the customary expenses of tuition, school supplies, and the burden of costly textbooks. Finding the appropriate editions in readable condition can accumulate quite a hefty bill after purchasing an entire course load worth of texts.

Since 1978 textbook prices have risen nearly 812% according to the American Enterprise Institute, while medical services swelled 575%, and new home prices rose only 325%. Brick-and-mortar bookstore prices may include the approximately 28% store markup on top of the rising costs, and the growing costs of printing, royalties, editing, marketing and general company upkeep make this traditional purchasing option one of the most expensive.

As millions of students struggle with these mounting educational costs, the government has recognized this academic “crisis of access” as Priceonomics blogger, Zachary Crockett described in a post.  He would go on to say that “Life isn’t learned from textbooks . . . an education can sometimes be richer without them.”

However, as digital technology further advances to meet students’ textbook needs, low-cost options are emerging for students scouring the markets to find cheaper books. The Affordable College Textbook Act introduced to Congress in 2013 proposed offering federal funds to promote open-source databases and help textbook companies offer students more economical options.

The company Openstax aspires to provide texts at a fraction of their customary costs by allowing professors to create and customize textbooks for their curriculums and making the materials available online or through downloadable PDF or eBook formats. OpenStax and its investors are committed to making open source textbooks more accessible to all students.

Currently, OpenStax is funded chiefly by philanthropic investors such as Rice University and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“They [philanthropic investors] might invest a million dollars to develop two books, but they would like to see that paid back over a number of years by saving students $20 or $30 million” said Richard Baraniuk, a Rice University professor, in a Time magazine web article.

Flat World Knowledge, another open source company, has similarly been operating since 2007 and now serves nearly 200,000 students. Unlike OpenStax, Flat World has sustained as a for-profit operation, earning revenue by offering supplemental materials such as study aids or print and audio versions of books at an additional cost.  As long as these costly texts are required to pass classes, students can look towards advancing technologies and emerging companies to offer them the resources they need at more cost-effective prices.

Until open source books become commonplace, UMBC students can look to used books for reduced cost options, or online websites which offer large selections of texts to filter through. But for students looking to purchase used books locally and help out classmates, Backpack ‘Em provides another option.

The Backpack ‘Em website offers UMBC students a platform to sell their used course materials and set their own price. Fellow students can scroll through listings specific to a UMBC course and department, locate their specific item or book, and contact the student seller, eliminating shipping hassles and the difficulties of procuring used UMBC customized course materials on other websites.

As long as these costly texts are required to pass classes, students can look towards advancing technologies and emerging companies to offer them the resources they need at more cost-effective prices.


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Crockett, Zachary. “Why Are Textbooks So Expensive?” Priceonomics. N.p., 18 Dec. 2013. Web. 16 Aug. 2014. <http://priceonomics.com/why-are-textbooks-so-expensive/>.

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Luckerson, Victor. “Free Textbooks Shaking Up Higher Education.” Business Money Free Textbooks Shaking Up Higher Education Comments. Time, 10 Aug. 2012. Web. 16 Aug. 2014. <http://business.time.com/2012/08/10/free-textbooks-shaking-up-higher-education/>.

“What Do You Do with Your Old Books…Backpack ‘Em, of Course.” MyUMBC. The Alex Brown Center for Entrepreneurship, 9 Aug. 2014. Web. 16 Aug. 2014. <http://my.umbc.edu/news/45722>.