I teach at a large, public technical college that grants associate degrees in more than 100 occupational programs. I have never had a trust-fund baby in any of my classes. My students come from low- to modest-income households. And many are being saddled with a lifetime of student debt.
During the past decade, the costs of higher education have increased more than those of almost any other product or service. One factor driving this trend is the collusion among faculty, institutions and the textbook industry.
Today, it’s normal for students to pay hundreds of dollars for one textbook. To cut costs, students seek other options, such as buying used — sometimes outdated — books, renting books or taking courses without buying the books.
Because those student strategies don’t generate revenue for them, publishers often issue frequent revisions. Some fields of study change rapidly, making updates crucial. In other fields, however, substantive change is slower, but books still undergo regularly revisions, making previous editions obsolete.
The explosive growth of online learning has been a godsend for publishers that provide essential online content. Such content usually is paid for in the price of a new book. Students who buy used books must pay an additional access fee for required online content and often end up paying as much as they would have to for a new book.
Further, publishers now provide a new level of services for faculty, such as customized content with matching syllabi and automated test scoring. These rely heavily on online content students must pay to access.
Some professors — especially those working at institutions that prioritize research over teaching — are pleased to pass the task of teaching to publishers, or to outsource their online course management to outside academics.
Institutions can further increase their reliance on adjunct instructors, who deal with their own debt and are desperate for work.
Online economies of scale also appeal to cash-strapped institutions. If professors are willing to set courses on autopilot, they have an incentive to pack students into larger online sections. Our great institutions of higher learning may become massive online course providers.
To be clear: online learning offers a range of benefits. Modern foreign-language classes can provide television shows in slow language. Art classes can present clear images online rather than blurry slides in the lecture hall. Late-breaking developments can be integrated quickly into the curriculum. Students in the military can continue their educations.
But our duty as educators is to use online learning to the students’ best advantage. Our institutions of higher learning — including faculty, administration and boards of trustees — need to take control. The good news is that other options are emerging.
One publisher, Cengage Unlimited, now allows full access, for a single fee, to students who use that publisher’s material. This is an improvement, but it monopolizes the role of that publisher.
A better idea is for each school to set a flat rate for all supporting material for courses, including textbooks and online content. Publishers can structure their products for reasonable return.
Schools may also require all sections of a course to use the same book. This is the standard at the college where I teach. If a faculty member objects to some publisher’s content or considers it incomplete, he or she can develop supplemental material for the course. We are paid to teach, after all.
Student loan debt has exceeded credit card debt for several years.
We are the only developed nation that does this to our students.
We must decide who will carry this burden, and strive to minimize it.
Don Weimer teaches economics and personal finance at Milwaukee Area Technical College in Milwaukee. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.