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College textbook scams

College textbooks aren’t just books any more

When I went to university (a long time ago…) books were just books. Paper with printed words. When you bought a book, you were entitled to read the book. Nothing more, nothing less.

Today’s textbooks are often a wrapper for a bundle of services. When someone buys a textbook, they’re often buying:

  • a physical book
  • a token to access some other services

Students are forced to buy a bundle of services

This might seem fine, except when you consider that:

  • the services can only be used once, or by one student
  • the services are often not for the benefit of the student, but for that of the professor (more on that below)
  • the student is forced to buy this bundle, even if they already know everything the book teaches

The background

Let’s say I’m a professor, and it is an accepted part of my job to set homework, and provide feedback on that homework in the form of grades (or a % score) and some comments.

Assume the subject I’m teaching doesn’t change much year to year (as far as undergraduates are concerned anyway). So for the last 10 years my course has been based on the same edition of the same textbook. As it’s now 10 years old, there are plenty of used copies available for 20 USD, even though new copies are 50 USD.

The offer

Let’s say a publisher approaches me with an offer that provides ME with more value: a textbook that comes with a code for online access to homework and automatic grading, good for one student for one year only. The catch? The students need to buy the textbook for 50 USD and, because it’s the only way to get a code to allow students to submit homework, they can’t buy a used copy.

If I accept, then:

  • my students need to shell out 50 USD each for a new textbook (vs. the existing one which would have been effectively free, as they could recoup their 20 USD outlay by selling it at the end of the year)
  • I get paid the same, but the textbook company takes over some of my work (and I still get paid the same!)

The incentive and the bribe

If I’m the professor in this case, the textbook is offering me something of value (doing some work that I’m already being paid for through students’ tuition fees paid to my employer) in exchange for me forcing my students to give the textbook company money.

This seems no different from a bribe: the publisher will do all your homework marking, if the professor will use their position of authority to funnel student money to the publisher.