Racket of the day: higher education

A professor at Cal State Fullerton is in trouble for assigning a cheaper textbook than the one assigned by his department. The department-chosen text retails for a whopping $180. It’s also worth noting that the $180 textbook was written by the chair and vice chair of the math department.

Aside from unfortunate conflict of interest, one has to step back and wonder why it is that textbooks are so expensive these days. Has the cost of publishing gone up significantly? Prices in the rest of the book industry would seem to indicate not. Is it harder to recruit authors than ever? Maybe, but it’s worth pointing out that there’s probably not much that has changed in an introductory linear algebra text in the past 50 years.

The only explanation I can’t bat away is that the educational publishing industry learned to assert market power. The students have to buy the course textbook, and that gives publishers who can get in the door strong pricing flexibility, better yet if they are in cahoots with the administration. Furthermore, the ability to pay is bolstered by our good friends, non-dischargeable student loans.

It’s embarassing and sad. One could imagine an alternative universe where a system like Cal State endeavors to create its own teaching┬ámaterials for free or minimal cost. It’s not like their are a dearth of linear algebra resources for free on the web. But that is not our world.

Finally, as a point of comparison, it just so happens that I still have my linear algebra textbook from undergrad.

What a textbook cost in 1992
What a textbook cost in 1992
Linear Algebra for Calculus, K. Heuvers, J. Kuisti, et al.
Linear Algebra for Calculus, K. Heuvers, J. Kuisti, et al.








$13.35 in 1992 would be $22.64 today. Amazon lists the current edition today for $111. Hmm.

2 thoughts on “Racket of the day: higher education”

  1. Dave, This is interesting. My kids (grades 8, 6, and 4) only have “online” textbooks and only for a few subjects. The teachers mostly teach from power points and use worksheets/printouts. EVEN for High School Algebra 1! I wish that they had a book that I could open to see how they were taught something (or refresh my geezer memory!) rather than going on to Kahn academy or trying to find the info online. Maybe it has to do with how expensive the books are these days–definitely a “racket” all the way down!

    1. I agree with you on liking a textbook, even though I am generally not a huge fan of books — that is, the big rectangular blocks of paper, not the content. When I’m studying, or helping someone study, I like something solid and unflickery I can stare at. But I’m not entirely certain that what we like or are comfortable with is necessarily best. If the kids today work well from PowerPoint and online resources, then maybe its our burden to adjust.

      That said, I believe high school textbooks have seen similar price inflation as college textbooks, with the difference that the district pays rather than the pupil, so yeah, I would be not be surprised if this was pushing the districts to cheaper online resources. Let’s hope they are as good.

      I don’t have kids in high school yet, only the older one is in 2nd and getting NY State Common Core stuff. It looks … okay to me. On the other hand, a recent nationwide test showed US math scores down overall for the first time in like 20 years. Yeesh. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/28/us/nationwide-test-shows-dip-in-students-math-abilities.html?_r=0

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