Commenter GalleryP pointed out in the comments of my last piece on OER (here) that the Calculus book can be used across two semesters if bought new and not rented. This is true, and I’ll adjust down the high end of the range down across the two semesters by $209. (Spoiler alert: it’s still an obscene amount, and the low end of the range remains unchanged).
But this also an example of how people in the know understand how to keep costs down, while failing to realize that this “How To Be a College Student 101” stuff is not always available to everybody. Renting a Calculus book across three semesters could actually cost me more than buying it, and put me at a disadvantage in later courses when I need a refresher.
But as a first semester working adult, I know that how? As a first generation student trying to get a leg up on ordering books I know that how?
I remember my Shakespeare Tragedies class as an undergraduate. We were supposed to get these thick, thick, annotated Arden editions of Hamlet, Macbeth, and other plays. Probably about $50 total then, back in the early 1990s, maybe the equivalent of a hundred now? The annotations in these things were three to four times the length of the text though, and considered the the best possible version of both text and commentary.
I wasn’t a rich kid by any means, but I took one look at those books, figured those annotations would be important, and ponied up the cash.
And I remember there being a few kids in that class, and you knew they were completely out of it, because they came in with these $4 Penguin editions of Shakespeare they’d gotten at Barnes and Noble or Paperback Booksmith. And so throughout the class the teacher would say “Turn to page 103, and let’s read from the Iago line down” and we’d all flip to that page in our scholarly editions, and they would look all around and try to figure out where that was in their little dinky version (which didn’t even *have* 103 pages). And questions would come up about something in the annotations, and they couldn’t answer it, or they’d have to borrow another’s book.
I wish I could say that I remember this because I felt such sympathy for those students. Unfortunately, no. At the time I felt really aggravated about it. What the hell? Just get the frickin’ book already!
I remember it not out of of the milk of human kindness, but because it made me and the other English majors in the class feel superior. It was a defining moment for us. It bonded us together. We were the real literature students. We knew not to bring a Penguin edition knife to an annotated gun fight.
Looking back on that, of course, I was being a complete dick. Some people don’t even know what an annotated edition is, never mind whether it would be important to get one. I can see them now looking at this stack of annotated Shakespeare editions and thinking — geez, $50? For a bunch of plays that haven’t changed in centuries? Ha! Nice try, College Bookstore!
I’m guessing the students in that class with the $4 Penguin copies did not do as well as they might have. Some of them may have even flunked. But of course, in their mind they were utilizing the same can-do attitude of the students that confidently buy an older edition of a textbook.
It calls to mind the whole pill-splitting phenomenon. Drug companies charge prices that soak people who take lower dosages of pills, so many people get higher dosages of their medicine and split the pills with a pill-splitter.
And for a person who knows their way around WebMD this might be a great solution — you can cut the cost of some of the drugs you take down by 50%. And so a bunch of insurers have encouraged the practice of prescribing double doses and having the consumer cut them in half.
But there are dangers to this.
First of all, people aren’t uniformly good at splitting pills. Dose deviation is common among pill-splitters and that’s an issue for drugs that need to be maintained in a narrow range. Worse, many pills are in extended release formulations that break down when split. Splitting a time-released pill in half can cause an overdose. The list goes on: cutting all your pills in half before you need them could cause them to become ineffective, people often forget to cut them and take a double dose, etc.
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t split pills. But it is to say that it’s not as easy as saying when confronted with high drug prices “Well, patients can just split pills.” Because some patients will do it wrong. And then what do you do?
Those students that bought the cheap version of the text back in 1991? They were pill-splitters. And they failed at pill-splitting (and maybe at the course). Do we own that failure?
What we’ve learned over the past five years or so in OER is that what we sell in the Open Textbook movement is not just reduced cost. It’s the simplicity that you can get when you’re not working with an industry trying to milk every last dollar out of students. It’s every student having their materials on day one, for as long as they like, without having to navigate “simple” questions of what to buy, what to rent, and when-is-the-book-on-the-syllabus-that’s-required-not-really-required.
For people at home in academia, some of this may seem a little silly — informed students know how to work around the current system just fine. But maybe that’s exactly the point?
Bracken replies to the original post in Delivering the Ideal Bag O’ Books, noting that we have to ask how to make the groceries even healthier.
David Wiley calls further attention to the impact of net getting the textbook, citing a study (also cited by Phil) in The Practical Cost of Textbooks.