Screwing Students Through Pointless Textbook Bundles

By Zachary Knight, Techdirt.August 22, 2012 at 06:07AM

While some schools and teachers are looking for ways to make education, and especially textbooks, cheaper for students, others seem bent on doing everything possible to keep prices artificially high. Because colleges essentially have the textbook market cornered, they can require students to purchase just about anything in order to bring in more revenue. Unfortunately for the students, this can mean increased costs and and annoyance with the process itself.

Enter Luke Thomas, who had a very annoying textbook situation in an English class. All Luke and his wife wanted to do was take an English class together. They figured that they could get by with a single textbook between the two of them, but things in college are never that easy. You see, the professor for their class required a specific book, which he had authored, as well as an one time use access code to an online discussion board. However, the only way to get that code was to buy a brand new textbook.

My wife and I were taking that same class, and we were unable to purchase an access code without purchasing two copies of the book, which was very upsetting. I asked the individuals working at the bookstore if they sold unbundled copies of the access code, and to my dismay, they did not.

Because buying two books for two people who lived together and took the class together was a pointless endeavor, Luke decided to take matters into his own hands. He contacted the service provider of the discussion board and was able to buy the code directly through them for $20 plus shipping. Yes, the code had to be physically shipped to him. Of course, this was an option that neither the professor nor the book store offered him to begin with.

As a former college student in this internet connected world, I am also aware of such shady textbook deals. One Trigonometry class I took required the purchase of a $75 access code to the online textbook and quizzes. While my course wasn’t tied to a physical book, it did limit the end of semester cash that most students are used to getting as they sell off their books — something that schemes like this do not allow.

Of course Luke didn’t let it end with him just buying his code and getting through the course. He also spoke to the head of the bookstore as well as researched the law behind such bundles. What he found was a treat for any school or professor that would attempt to do something like this in the future:

After researching this issue, there’s a federal law which requires the unbundling of textbooks. How often is this law enforced? I have no idea…

UNBUNDLING OF COLLEGE TEXTBOOKS FROM SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS.—A publisher that sells a college textbook and any supplemental material accompanying such college textbook as a single bundle shall also make available the college textbook and each supplemental material as separate and unbundled items, each separately priced.

Wow! Wouldn’t that be something to bring up to that professor and his supervisors? That is, if they will actually listen. However, there is also another path that might serve a student in getting a quick resolution to the matter of being forced to buy a new book to get such online materials: patent law. Perhaps this professor is unaware that his method of forcing students to buy a new book and prevent sharing has been patented. Wouldn’t that patent showdown be a joy to watch unfold?

Lucky for us, there are plenty of people out there looking after the plight of the poor college student. Luke takes the time to highlight a few notables out there.

It looks like there’s light at the end of the tunnel, companies like Boundless Learning, Lore, and the plethora of ed-tech startups are seeking to disrupt these greedy giants. Go get em guys!

With all the attention that high college tuition prices get in the media, one would think that the textbook industry would be a prime target for an area to reduce the cost of an education for students. Sadly, the textbook industry gets a pass by most budget hawks as they tend to focus the majority of their attention on the sticker price of college. If they would expand their focus they could probably see a lot of room for improvement in additional costs outside tuition. Until then, good luck paying for all those books you may or may not need.

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