Aside from attending class, what pains college students more than spending money? Unfortunately, our lifestyles tend to demand it with some frequency, often resulting in cash hemorrhages that severely outstrip our incomes. The issue is exacerbated when, say, low-level alcoholism demands the routine purchase of questionable beer or deadbeat parents condemn us to crippling student loans. Some have turned to near-ascetic lifestyles, and I’d do the same, but one man can only drink so much butter tea.
Still, it’s the beginning of the quarter, and there’s one grim routine that may well push another round of us into the monastery: Purchasing textbooks. Weeks one through three invariably bring the usual dazed emergents from the university bookstore, head hung, wondering how it could’ve been mathematically possible to drop the 300 bucks they’d earmarked for a new subwoofer on a stack of dead trees. They curse the sinister, faceless corporations who, they assume, ratchet the prices of these books well beyond their “real value” in order to grab a wider profit margin. These firms also, of course, delight in driving helpless collegians further into penury, but that’s mostly a fringe benefit.
Solutions have been proposed. One website lists a number of “progressive” ways to slay the unchained beast that is textbook pricing. You could, for instance, build a huge pile of all the old editions that you and your friends can no longer use or sell. So the logic goes, if you take photos of this monstrosity and send them – angry letters attached – to a major publisher, they’ll see the error of their ways. I must confess to a certain lack of optimism about this method.
As with most of life’s troubles, economic thinking can shed light on this one. First off, why are textbooks so pricey, anyway? Some pieces of the explanation are obvious. Many of these tomes, especially when it comes to the sciences, are weighty, glossy affairs filled with colorful pie charts and high-resolution shots of clouds. They’re also sold on a relatively small scale; as Oprah’s Book Club will not be featuring Modeling and Analysis of Dynamic Systems in the near future, the seller’s going to have to make up in unit price what they don’t make on the number shifted.
Most importantly, though – and less intuitively – the very same bunch of furrowed brows complaining about how much they had to shell out this quarter are, in fact, doing their part to keep prices high. The unvarnished truth is that most of us are willing to lay down as many simoleons and fall through as many credit brackets as necessary to acquire what’s on our syllabi, because the alternative appears to be a failing grade. This, in the economists’ parlance, is an “inelastic demand.” The less elastic the demand for a good, the more people will be willing to buy it no matter how ridiculous the price. The demand for salt, for example, is fairly inelastic, but then again, we need it to live.
A lack of 425 pages on organic chemistry is unlikely to induce a fatal electrolyte disturbance, even in the most uptight students, though its price could easily throw one into sticker shock. Is this corporate greed in action? A sign of thinly veiled intellectualism or further marginalization of America’s college students? Doubtful. Is it a result of the student body’s general willingness to pay through the nose? Now we’re talking.
The elasticity of demand for textbooks varies from region to region. Break out an exchange rate chart and visit Amazon.co.uk sometime. Apparently, the Brits aren’t quite as ready to liberate several weeks’ wages in the name of education, and thus, they’re offered the very same volumes at a lower price. If you truly want to make a difference, be like our friends across the Atlantic: When presented with costly texts, simply tighten your fists. If enough of us do, it will send a clear message indeed. That’s more than a bunch of butter tea-sippers huddled around a pile of discarded hardbacks could ever hope for.
Daily Nexus columnist Colin Marshall asked the new bookstore to trade tea leaves for his used textbooks, but they too demanded more greenery than he could carry.