This fall, when students in my English 511 class at Hancock College asked why I had assigned such an expensive textbook, I answered I didn't know how much the book cost.
When they told me the price - $140 - I was
stunned. I had no idea it cost that much.
What I also did not know is a growing trend exists among students not to purchase a textbook. because they simply can't afford it.
Not purchasing a required text for a college course has serious implications. The student's chances of getting an A or B are almost
nonexistent. A C is about the best they can hope for, and they may not get that.
This will impact their grade-point average, their chances of getting a scholarship or being accepted into a four-year college and even a graduate program, affecting their future employment.
It is a nationwide problem. MSNBC reported in September the average American college student spends $1,200 a year for textbooks. The cost of textbooks has risen a staggering 812 percent since 1978. Textbook prices are rising four times faster than the rate of inflation, more than the cost of housing or medical care.
I did an informal survey of my students on the cost of textbooks, and 96 percent answered "yes" when asked if, in their opinion, textbooks cost too much, while 40 percent admitted to not buying a textbook because of its high cost.
"The prices keep going higher," said one, "and if I pay it, I can't pay for necessities."
Nearly three-quarters said they buy used textbooks when they can. Students also report paying as much as $300 for a single textbook.
This comes with a near-universal complaint from students - they pay the high price of a textbook, and then it is hardly used during the semester.
"Many teachers require them," one student wrote, "then go the whole year without using them."
The advocacy group Make Textbooks Affordable focuses the blame on publishers, pointing out that five companies dominate 85 percent of the market, so there is little or no competition.
These companies release new editions every two or three years, rendering older, used editions obsolete, and bundle their texts with items like CDs, which have to be purchased, but are often not used in the course.
Students often search for cheaper alternatives on the internet, and buy used books whenever they can. Some rent books, while others will share the cost. Nearly all try to sell their books back to the college bookstore, and 91 percent answer "no" when asked if they received a fair price for their used books.
AHC Bookstore officials deny that students are shortchanged when they sell their used books.
"Only California real estate and Harley-Davidsons have a better resale," says Bill Hockensmith, the Bookstore director. He also advises students to "always use the ISBN to get the right edition" and to "shop early classes to get the maximum use."
Textbook buyer Marissa Djafroodi points out that "the longer a book is out, the smaller the demand is for new copies, since the market becomes saturated with used copies."
The high cost of textbooks, like the high cost of college tuition, is hurting those least able to bear the financial burden - students from poor families and those who are returning to school in hopes of furthering their education and thus improving their lives.
For a student to be forced to choose between life's necessities and a textbook is to impose an unacceptable choice on them.
Mark James Miller is president of the Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.