By Bryan O'Keefe
The Boston Globe has an interesting story this morning about Harvard Deans asking faculty members to help reduce student expenditures on textbooks. The story claims that the Deans have asked professors to put more classroom materials online and to also decide earlier if they plan to use textbooks in subsequent semesters.
The whole issue of college textbooks is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I don’t always have a lot of sympathy for students who complain about the high costs of textbooks. I remember back in my undergrad days, I would hear people moan and groan and then run into them a couple nights later at a local watering hole, spending lots of money on things other than their Chemistry textbook. In some ways, textbook expenditures are just like anything purchase – you prioritize and budget accordingly. Some students unfortunately just choose to spend their money elsewhere.
But students are not completely to blame. I remember a few professors assigning books simply because they or another faculty member they were friends with wrote the textbook. Occasionally, the book would not even be used in class, which was positively outrageous. Any book that a professor asks a student to buy should at least be incorporated in some way into the class, or the professor should make it clear on day one that buying that textbook is really optional.
I have also heard from some professors on this issue and I understand their viewpoint too – namely that with the internet and Amazon.com, they simply do not get the type of royalties they used to. As a result, there is even greater pressure to come up with a new edition of a textbook in order to make money.
I think the easiest solution for all three groups is for college administrators to watch professors very carefully. If the professors really are using the textbooks and the material can not be found online, then the students should just buy the darn thing. But if professors are clearly abusing the textbook buying process, they should be held accountable too. I suppose that the new Harvard policy is a step in that direction, but it would be much better if the University and Deans looked at things on a more individual basis.
Better yet, why doesn’t an enterprising Harvard undergrad conduct surveys of students and figure out which professors really use their textbooks and which don’t? The results of the survey could be posted on a website, which would surely bring in advertising revenue once people started clicking on it to figure out if they really need to buy that new textbook. There has to be a goldmine for this type of information. Here’s hoping that somebody runs with this idea!