Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Textbook prices have long been a hot issue among college students and their parents. Even though $200-$500 for books per semester is not that much in comparison to tuition costs at most private colleges, buying books is yet another source of financial stress. In response to this, some textbook authors and publishers have begun making their books available online, whether for free or as a paid download.
The New York Times published an article (Don’t Buy That Textbook, Download It Free) examining this trend in September. According to that article, R. Preston McAffee, a CalTech economics professor, chooses to publish his textbook online “in protest of what he says are textbooks’ intolerably high prices — and the dumbing down of their content to appeal to the widest possible market.”
But how does this relate to the average Swarthmore student? A few classes, including Biology 27 and Computer Science 37, use textbooks available for free online; the vast majority, however, do not. The next option, then, would be to purchase an e-book through the College Bookstore.
E-books are simply digital copies of the print textbook. Depending on the publisher, they may have a limit on how many pages can be printed in a time period, and they may expire after a certain time.
From a financial standpoint, there is a notable price difference between a textbook and an e-book. From the Swarthmore bookstore, Essentials of Investments for Econ 22 (Professor Caskey’s Financial Economics course) costs $163.35 new, $122.55 used, and $98.01 e-version. That’s approximately 25% off from new to used, 20% off from used to e-book, and 40% off from new to e-book.
Even so, the e-book does not seem to have taken well with students here.
“I don’t like them. I can’t read that much off a computer screen — it gives me a headache,” Tarini Kumar ’12 said.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction for reducing the price of textbooks for students. I don’t like reading things on a computer, though. I like having the physical thing there,” said Jamie Kendall ’11.
Linda Bordley, the Office Coordinator of Swarthmore’s Bookstore, says, “We sell literally six to eight [e-books] per semester, but it’s important to have a lower-cost option out there.”
In general, textbooks for Swat students are determined not by price but by content.
Stephen Golub, Professor of Economics, says, “I try to find [a textbook] that’s at the right level for Swarthmore students. Some textbooks are too simplistic—I try to find one that explains things at a level comprehensive to students here. I don’t consider price too much, but I try to find price cuts whenever possible.”
At other colleges, the story seems similar. When asked whether their colleges offered an e-book option for their textbooks, students at various colleges responded almost identically.
“No, I’ve never heard of that,” remarked Caylin Carbonell, Bates College.
“I don’t think so,” said Anna Bishop, USC.
Anna Costello of Brown University, said “I don’t think so, but I’m not positive. When I was in the Bookstore, I didn’t see anything about e-books. I haven’t heard anything about people getting them, either.”
“Not that I’m aware of. I haven’t heard of them,” responded Greg Kim, Williams College.
Bordley, the Bookstore’s Office Coordinator, confirmed these impressions: “I have colleagues at other campuses, and a lot of them have experienced the same figures—and these are at much bigger colleges than Swarthmore.”
So, while the CEO of eBooks About Everything seems to think that “eReading is finally beginning to make a difference in education,” it doesn’t appear to have made too much of an impact yet.