This tweet from Penn State running back Akeel Lynch caught my eye last week:
104 dollars for a book? The book better be able to read to me.
I chuckled when I saw the message and then promptly forgot about it ... until a few days later, when I found myself standing in line with my son and wife at a bookstore connected with a major local university.
As we discussed whether to take out a second mortgage or begin selling off our furniture to pay for his course materials, a student walking buy noticed the calculus textbook in my sons pile.
I have a copy of that book if you want to save some money, the student said. I had that class last year.
He pulled a used version of the same calculus text from his backpack, showed my son that it was indeed identical otherwise and was in decent shape.
Then we settled on a cash price that was a good bit more than the student would have received for selling the book back to the store, and a lot less than the $180 price on the new one we had located on the shelves.
That was a good moment in an otherwise frightening experience.
Mr. Lynch indeed had it right. The prices of textbooks are absurd.
It seems criminal that students are spending hundreds of dollars every semester for reading material that they will likely never even open. Its especially troubling when its my money.
There are alternatives to buying new books. The used book trade has been an option for many years. Now students can rent books much cheaper than buying or in some cases find their class materials online.
A college professor from St. Louis recently argued that the climbing prices of textbooks is a result of alternatives such as renting or buying used. Henry Roediger, a psychology professor at Washington University, said book companies and authors set prices high because theyre selling fewer books and those books stay on the market longer.
I guess no one told those authors that if they had charged reasonable prices to begin with, the used market would have stalled and the rental market would never have blossomed. I guess I just dont understand economics.
Actually, an organization called Student Monitor surveyed college book spending and found that students spent less on average in 2010-11 ($598) than they did two years earlier ($677) because of renting and used-book purchases.
According to a USA Today article from the spring, Cornell University is among the schools working with publishing houses to hold down textbook prices. What a concept.
In April, the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota took steps to helps its instructors find cheaper books for their students. The college produced a guide to open textbooks free (gasp!) or low-cost versions of books that can be found online, in electronic form or in print.
The books are reviewed by Minnesota faculty before being listed in the guide.
Lizzy Shay, undergraduate student body president, naturally supported her schools initiative.
High textbook costs are one of the many factors that are contributing to the increasing financial burden that students are facing, Shay said on the universitys website. Affordable open textbooks would go a long way in relieving that burden.
So would cheaper housing and lower tuition, but those are scams, er, topics for discussion on another day.
I love the Minnesota program, which shows a university finding creative ways to help its students survive and, hopefully, graduate.
We put that $180 calculus book back on the shelf. We still spent hundreds for biology and chemistry texts, lab manuals, online access codes and whatever else we lugged out of that bookstore.
And no, Mr. Lynch, none of the books reads its words aloud, or pumps knowledge directly into a students brain. Lord knows what that might cost.
I hope that enterprising ex-calculus student spent his windfall on something worthwhile. Perhaps a blue book and some No. 2 pencils.
Chip Minemyer is the executive editor of the Centre Daily Times. He can be reached at 231-4640. Follow him on Twitter @Minemyerchip