Discussion of Open Textbooks in the NYTimes

NYTimes Opinion 11 December 2019 – How Professors Help Rip Off Students: Textbooks are too expensive.

Another interesting article from the NYTimes related to our work here at the physedgroup. This most recent article talks about the fact that textbook prices have increased over 1000% since the 1970’s! The article specifically talks about economics, but many of the details mentioned are relevant to physics as well: $250 books, with $50 access codes for homework systems, all familiar refrains for undergraduates taking physics courses.

The article raises an interesting question: are faculty aware of the dramatically increasing costs of textbooks, and the impact that has on our students’ well-being? In my anecdotal experience, noting that the plural of anecdote is not data, I get the sense that many faculty are aware of the increasing costs, but not, perhaps to the extreme extent of 1000% since the 1970’s. Couple these costs with the extreme increases in tuition, plus the larger diversity of economic backgrounds entering colleges and universities (a great thing!), and I suspect the full picture may not be fully “real” to many faculty.

Even myself, a comparatively younger faculty member, experienced a different reality. When I started at the University of Arizona as an undergraduate, in-state tuition was $2,594 according to https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/tuition-and-fees. This coming year, the cost is $12,487. If the cost only rose with inflation, the cost this year would be $3709. Thus, the cost, in real terms, has increased a factor of 3.37 times. That increase is just tuition and fees. Textbooks, as mentioned in the article, are rising even faster. The most recent edition of Young and Freedman’s University Physics with Modern Physics cost around $120 new in 2002. The newest edition costs $231. In short, I am not sure that your average faculty member has a full grasp on the financial strain that many, if not most, students are facing.

If we are aware of the costs of higher education, the article posits that we have an ethical responsibility to work to counter them, and the one aspect that faculty control is the textbooks. While I generally agree, I feel that this article skips over a few points that may not be relevant at the Columbia College of Law, but are very relevant at the introductory level for the natural sciences. In such intro science courses, the course is usually taught by multiple instructors with each doing a subset of the sections. As such, in the interests of fairness and ease of maintaining a uniformity across sections, textbooks are decided by a committee. An individual faculty member may not have the decision making power to choose to use a free text on their own. Moreover, if these courses are taught by research-tenure-track faculty, and you consider the MASSIVE amount of other demands on the time of research-focused faculty, economics of collecting and developing their own course materials just doesn’t make sense. They need to move their research forward, graduate their Ph.D. students, apply for grants, and serve on committees. Moreover, they will only teach the course three or four times before moving on to a new one. Why spend the time developing new open materials? Especially when another research grant would probably count for more in their promotions?

This is part of why I think teaching faculty are so important: teaching is our job. We, have the time and opportunity to develop these materials. Moreover, for those of us who work at public institutions, I feel that we have a responsibility to the state which employs us to develop and share materials. This can be done, our books for 131 and 132 are a great start, but there is still more to be done!