College Textbook Prices are Rising at Three Times the Rate of Inflation

By Jason Priestas on August 18, 2014 at 9:45a
The Economist charts the rising cost of college textbooks.
Chart via The Economist

If you're a student or you've ever attended college, you no doubt have an unfavorable opinion of textbook publishers. After all, where else can you shell out over a grand for book on the history of early film, only to get a fraction of what you paid for it three months later?

Thanks to this chart from The Economist, we can see just how much the prices of textbooks have risen relative to other consumer prices over the last 45 years and it's depressing. Three times the rate of inflation depressing.

Students can learn a lot about economics when they buy Greg Mankiw's "Principles of Economics"--even if they don't read it. Like many popular textbooks, it is horribly expensive: $292.17 on Amazon. Indeed, the nominal price of textbooks has risen more than fifteenfold since 1970, three times the rate of inflation.



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DJRoss926's picture

Special shoutout to professors who create custom textbooks with exactly zero resale value.

+25 HS
spqr2008's picture

With the sole exception of having a local bookstore (SBX is the one that did it for a couple of my professors) print them out and sell them for a very marginal profit (those professors didn't want us spending all our money on the texts they didn't like, so they put some together and told SBX they weren't allowed to charge over $70 for it, plus it's been a great reference book).

+4 HS
ChicagoBuckMD's picture

Lookin at you, OSU Spanish Department

"Why be around average?" - UFM

+1 HS
kyo's picture

Did The Economist create this chart on MS Paint?

+9 HS
703Buckeye's picture

I managed to get through my undergrad buying/renting as few textbooks as possible. If I had to get a textbook, I would look online for used books, old editions, or share one book with like 3-5 classmates. I only had to pay full-price for a book two or three times, when the professors teaching the class required we buy a book they authored. The textbook industry is a total ripoff, I am not looking forward to my masters program.

"Attack the Strong, Trample the Weak, Hurdle the Dead!"
-Former OSU S&C Coach Lichter

+1 HS
InTressITrust's picture

Unless the text book has homework problems in them, I see no need in buying them.  The internet is making them obsolete.  If you do have to buy use online or use Facebook marketplace to find the books unique for your university.  

"I'm not going to lie. We're anxious to be a part of a matchup like that. It's two states that love the game of football." -Jim Tressel

+1 HS
jedkat's picture

As a History major I used to be salty at the science guys for only having to get 1 textbook per class versus my 10 until I realized the science text books are practically out of date as soon as you buy them and history doesn't change. Hooray decent resale value.

"Can we please stop the message board fighting? I really can't stand the message board fighting..."

"No. You're an idiot, and your posts are terrible."

+1 HS
Denny's picture

Unless you're in an extremely high-level science class, the fundamental science isn't changing rapidly. The groundwork of physics is all in the Principa. The groundwork of modern chemistry is roughly a hundred years old, and modern undergraduate-level organic chemistry is at least fifty years old.


jedkat's picture

I just meant in terms of "editions" etc. I was a bio major before I switched to history so I had to deal with no resale value because a new edition was always coming out. Once I switched to history there weren't many new editions coming out.

"Can we please stop the message board fighting? I really can't stand the message board fighting..."

"No. You're an idiot, and your posts are terrible."

+1 HS
THE_JUICE's picture

The thing about a lot of my science (and math) courses was that the best written books were often some of the older texts. I bought some books that had been written before I was born (1989), as a companion to the books we used in class for like $10-15.

A lot of Dover books were cheaply made and had very little style, but had good substance and provided me with better understanding of the material than the newer texts.

I know online reviews are an inexact science, but some of my textbooks averaged about 2 stars on amazon, whereas most of the Dover texts averaged above 4 stars. Some of that was probably due to low expectations due to the low price, but still, it was a bargain for my purposes and helped me greatly as a poor college student.

wolfeman17's picture

rent from Chegg, that's what I did. saved a lot of money.


+1 HS
11UrbzAndSpices's picture

Or just don't buy the textbooks...

Borrow them, get them from the library, torrent them. I didn't buy any my 5th year except for ones I wanted to own.

"Quit skipping leg day bro" - Dr James Andrews

Crimson's picture

Use  New International editions are cheap, and another example of market economics.  If the home country price is too high, arbitrage it with low price international editions.

+2 HS
Pavs38's picture

I have worked at many bookstores (including Long's on High Street and the one in Central Classroom) before moving on to bigger and better things.  The textbook industry is a dying breed.  Your better off renting, borrowing, using an old edition, going to the library, or not even using a book at this point.  

Custom textbooks are the same, they are usually just chapters of the regular textbook taken out to lessen the cost.  Well if you can find the old edition of that textbook online for way cheaper, then no need to buy the custom book.  Also the professors get a cut of the deal when they make a custom book, so thats why you see so many going that way.

My advice has always been, go to class first, see how much the text will actually be used and then make a judgement call, buy it if its absolutely necessary, rent it or get an old edition if money is the issue, or don't buy it if there is absolutely no need for it.  

I was a history major and most of the books I needed were in the library, so i went that route, rarely ever did I buy a textbook and I even worked at the bookstore and got a discount.

hit_the_couch's picture

When I was at CSCC and they switched to semesters, the prices of the textbooks almost doubled (I think the Ohio State books are even more). They brought in many cheaper paperback and loose leaf versions. I had a math class that I had to literally put the book in a binder because of the loose leaf. 

I guess they think since the classes are 5 weeks (or so) longer, than before, they can charge more for a book. Or maybe it's a ploy to push the rentals and e-books. They probably make more of e-books since they don't have to buy a hardcopy; plus, they can push tablet sales at the bookstore.

I always search/ sell on amazon, craigslist or other outlets before going to the bookstore. The books are often cheaper online too. One I found was for sell in Europe (amazon market) and got it half of the bookstore used price.

And then I told her...i'm no weatherman, but tonight's forecast is calling for several inches!

alust2013's picture

Loose leaf are the worst. They say they are saving you money because they are cheaper to produce, but they have no resale value.

...and Michigan still sucks.

PG_BUCK's picture

I think that textbooks are one of the biggest problems with the cost of higher education and the debt load that many students are taking on. I really wish that this issue would get more traction with the powers that be as it is boarder line criminal in my opinion. I am currently in grad school and I must agree with Crimson that international textbooks are the way to go, same textbook just paperback and for sale only in foreign countries. I find them on Ebay and almost exclusively use those...thanks Malaysian business man for helping me save money.


Furious George 27's picture

I always bought used due to them being pre-highlited and containing humorous pictures etc drawn in.

Yeah, well…that’s just like, your opinion, man.

+1 HS
Fatpants's picture

The ones that pissed me off the most were the loose leaf books that came shrink wrapped.

Do they still do that?

I'm just a poo gas huffin' toilet snorkeler at heart....

+1 HS
BuckeyeNut2012's picture

Yeah, just about every math book I've had to get is loose leaf. Not only can you not sell them back, but you have to buy a binder big enough to fit the whole thing in it. And because of the normal wear and tear on the book over the semester, you occasionally end up with pages that have fallen out since they rip so easily.

+1 HS
Fatpants's picture

I can't remember any of my math books coming this way. I've since blocked out those classes.

I'm just a poo gas huffin' toilet snorkeler at heart....

Citrus's picture

In law school, forgoing purchasing the books is not an option. The bill is $700-$1100 per semester.

+1 HS
sharks's picture

Past editions, especially first year- the black letter ain't changing. $200 casebook for $4 on Amazon? Every goddamned day and twice on Sundays.

Casebooks are just the ticket to attending class, my learning was always done thru the e&e books.

A man got to have a code...

dubjayfootball90's picture

One more year of price gauging for my books. Just one. More. Year.

You can feed a bobcat all the chili it wants. That don't mean it's going to crap out diamonds.

keeponbraxtonmebabe's picture

Yes, but look at the link on the price of the book about early film. That is the discounted price, you can save $185 off of the list price and get free shipping! How generous. 

One Bad Buckeye's picture

America, I still love my country and if called upon, I'd die protecting her.......

It just seems that she's gone from "the land of opportunity" to "the land where if you want an education to make a decent living, you get financially fucked in the ass so greedy ass banks get a huge slice of your income for 15+ years"  

"I'm One Bad Buckeye, and I approve this message."

+1 HS
MN Buckeye's picture

You can get on-line access to most textbooks at a reasonable price. For those few you may want to keep for future reference, buy!

DJ Byrnes's picture

TIL: people actually bought college books

Californian by birth, Marionaire by the Grace of President Warren G. Harding.

OnlyOne's picture

A Prof who cares about the students can save them lots of money.  In science and math they typically only use the text as a reference and for problems sets.  When I taught I listed the texts as optional - some students bought them, others did not - and I provide copies of problems sets.  I, also, had copies of the text for the students to borrow.  In my opinion if the students attended class and took decent notes they would be able to successfully complete the assignments.  (Taught engineering by the way.)  Of course, Profs are pressured to have students buy books.  There is a publisher-college industrial complex.  They threaten Profs with violation of intellectual properties laws if they use stuff from texts without making the students buy the books.  This can lead to a Prof not getting tenure or actually getting fired.  Profs make very little money off books they publish.  They do it to further their careers and climb the academic ladder.  It sort of like housing, where the laws of supply and demand no longer hold.  As long as the government, ie tax payers, props up the financing of educational loan industry the publishers will try to get their piece of the pie.  Iam allfor the government supporting education, but I think it should go directly to the students not through some middleman who gets to skim off the top.

huber57's picture

Use Type in the ISBN. You can find the same book that publishers sell overseas for about 1/4 of the price. I spent less than $1,000 on books through 3 years of grad school.

Why does Dublin have so many round-abouts? Because everyone in Dublin thinks they have the right-of-way.