How the Affordable College Textbook Act could save students money

How the Affordable College Textbook Act could save students money


A few weeks ago, Senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced the Affordable College Textbook Act, which promotes the use of open-source (free or low cost) textbooks in colleges and universities.

According to Matt Berman of The Atlantic:

“Everyone knows that college tuition costs have been skyrocketing. But, as The Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann pointed out earlier this year, it’s nothing compared to the growth in college textbook costs. The American Enterprise Institute shows just how much they have risen since 1978.

The 812-percent growth in textbook prices is far greater than the percent growth for college tuition and fees over about the same period. Prices have gone up 82 percent in the last decade alone. The average college student is now paying about $1,200 a year on textbooks and supplies.”

So how do open textbooks work?

Subject matter experts, who can be professors, illustrators, and publishers, get together to write a book that will be licensed as open content. Sometimes there are grants available to do this kind of work and other times professors feel that they can put together a better book than they are currently using. Authoring a textbook can also be another publication to add to a curriculum vitae.

Students who are taking a class that uses an open textbook can download the content for free or a nominal fee to a tablet or laptop and print out the parts that they need. Some of the texts allow for modifications in use by peers and professors. Printing out the text ends up being cheaper than purchasing the book at the campus bookstore.


  1. College textbooks represent a very small portion of the money students spend on their college education, much of it on frivolities such as computer games, beer, partying, etc. The price of college textbooks has been the favorite whipping boy of students (and professors) for generations. Part of the problem lies with professors who ask for comp copies of every book a publisher produces in the prof’s field. The prof then turns around and sells them (or in some cases gives them to favored students). Having been involved in college text publishing for many years, as well as serving as chairman of the Higher Education Division of the Assoc. of American Publishers, I believe I know something about the so called “problem.” The comp copies that publishers provide represents a significant portion of the costs involved in producing books. If a publisher sells 10,000 copies of a book in its first year (which, by the way is much higher than the average first year sale), sales in the second year will drop by as much as 75% because of the used book market. By the third year, sales of new books are negligible, which is why publishers find it necessary to endure the costs of producing a new edition. Whining about the costs of college textbooks has become so tiresome. You never hear students complaining about the cost of beer of other kinds of partying nor do you hear professors complaining about asking for and receiving comp copies only to turn around and sell them. Ask a college textbook sales rep how much success he or she has in convincing a prof to adopt a science book without any four color plates and all the other expensive accoutrements that go with it. The answer is zero. And yet, that same prof will empathize with the student protesting the high cost of textbooks. A professor – author and his or her publisher can spend years and what many would consider a fortune in writing and producing a quality textbook that fits the demands of profs who adopt them only to be flagellated by students and profs for the book’s high costs. It always troubles me to hear people complain about problems as they see them while knowing little or nothing about all the facts.