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The Disturbing State of College Education

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Mariah Bruce is a business student and freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon.

Textbook costs have risen 67% overall in the last decade. Textbook companies are not interested in education - they just want your money.

Textbook costs have risen 67% overall in the last decade. Textbook companies are not interested in education - they just want your money.

Are Students Getting Their Moneys Worth?

Is college in the United States becoming one of the biggest financial scams in world history? Or is it still a smart investment on the path to financial security? With tuition prices skyrocketing and a college education becoming increasingly hard to reach for low-income students, it’s hard to miss some of the blatant discrepancies in the cost of tuition and the quality of services that colleges and universities provide.

After paying the exorbitant cost of tuition and other mysterious fees that no one really understands, students are expected to set aside roughly $1,000 per year to cover the cost of books and materials. Textbook prices have increased by 1,047% since 1970, an exorbitant, and generally a prohibitive fee for students that come from low-income backgrounds.

Pay a Fee to Do Your Homework

The textbook scam is smart. Textbook companies combine an online textbook with an access code that allows you to get online content. Most colleges use a system like Blackboard or Desire2Learn, where professors can post announcements and students post assignments. But some professors decide to forgo these free services and use separate websites owned by the textbook companies, that are not free or open to all students. These sites require access codes provided by these very same textbook companies.

Additionally, these access codes can only be used once, so if you thought you could avoid all this nonsense and grab a copy of your textbook from a used bookstore, forget it. If you buy a used textbook, it will not have the access code and you won’t be able to complete any of your assignments. In order to do your homework, you might pay $200 or more to purchase the access code. Students spend hundreds on textbooks each term and no longer have the option to make some of that money back by selling the textbook once the term is over. No one wants a copy of your now useless textbook. Textbook publishers are successfully destroying the used book market, as well as making an incredible amount of money selling these overpriced access codes.

For years, it has been a common practice in the textbook industry to churn out new editions, even in very slow-moving fields such as metaphysics. In order for professors to get a contract with most textbook publishers, they must agree to produce a certain number of editions (typically 3 editions in 5 years). The purpose of this agreement is to undercut the used textbook market by effectively a tax on students that gets paid directly to textbook publishers.

Planned Obsolescence

Some schools publish department-specific textbooks (a standard text with a few minor modifications), then add a notice reading, “This book may not be bought or sold.” The publisher then sends a royalty to the department, who neglects to tell its students about this highly-profitable arrangement. Students pay the price here, and not all students can afford to purchase a tenth edition human anatomy textbook. Am I to believe that human anatomy changes that much every year? Because I think students are being scammed here. So much for academic integrity, I guess.

This model is based on planned obsolescence. If a textbook publishing company finds a typo, they’ll print a new edition and corner students into purchasing it. If a higher quality diagram is found, guess what? They’ll print another new edition. Calculus hasn’t changed much since its invention in the 17th century, but in the span of only 13 years, there have been eight editions of James Stewart’s best-selling calculus textbook. The book costs $245.98, a profit that afforded Stewart his $24 million home.

Big Publishers Crush the Competition

Some companies have tried to offer students a better alternative. One of these companies is called Boundless, a company that produces high-quality text, photo, and video content in a variety of subjects. Boundless organized this data in a way that mirrors popular textbook, chapter for chapter. Three textbook publishers, Cengage, Pearson, and MacMillan tried to sue Boundless, arguing that the ordering of the chapters was in violation of copyright. (As if placing a chapter on supply and demand before a chapter on elasticity is so revolutionary that it’s worth the $300 price tag).

Speaking of publishers, one of the reasons this scam works so well is due to a lack of competition in the college textbook market. MacMillan, Cengage, and Pearson control 80% of the market; they avoid publishing books in subjects in which their competitors have found success, limiting the options available to professors and students. Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education joined forces last year to create a company with a combined valuation of $5 billion, just trailing Pearson, who has a market cap of $8,5 billion. So when you’re in your dorm room slurping down a 25 cent pack of top ramen because that’s all you can afford, cursing your online homework for marking you wrong because you entered ¼ instead of .25, you can thank McGraw Hill CEO, Michael Hansen.

The Adjunct Problem

Another growing trend (ahem, scam) in colleges and universities across the country is the reliance on part-time and adjunct professors. Many adjunct professors struggle to make ends meet, surviving with the help of food stamps and receiving no benefits in the form of medical or dental insurance, retirement plans, or sick leave. Adjunct professors might be forced to work in multiple schools just to make ends meet and can’t afford to call out sick and risk a dock in their already meager wages. These adjunct professors now make up approximately 50 percent of college faculty.

Nicole Beth Wallenbrock, an adjunct professor, got her Ph.D. so that she could become a full-time professor and support her son on a steady income. Wallenbrock is only able to find part-time work teaching two courses at the City University of New York, making $2,800 per class, despite having a higher rating than most of her peers. She lives in the cheapest apartment she could find outside the city, a three-hour commute. She survives with public assistance and help from her family. She has become depressed and discouraged about the job market as a professor, feeling that she has failed her family and herself. Universities have increasingly decided to go in the direction of big business – to cut costs by hiring more part-timers to do the work of full-timers.

More than 70% of professors in the United States are “contingent,” part and full-time faculty who are appointed off the tenure track, saving universities a lot of money. This leaves professors unavailable to students, less energy in the classroom, and less time spent on grading and meaningful feedback that students need. Terry Hartle from the American Council of Education argues that in “some disciplines, particularly occupationally-oriented fields, you may be ahead by having an adjunct faculty professor with an extraordinary level of real-world experience,” but adjuncts professors teach in all disciplines. According to Hartle, schools have no choice:

“The pressures on colleges and universities to maintain tuition are extraordinarily high. Does the use of contingent faculty like adjuncts provide more flexibility to universities as economic enterprises that need to stay in business? Yes, it certainly does that.”

Hartle agrees that working as an adjunct is an incredibly difficult way to make a living, but argues that no one forces anybody to become an adjunct. Many people believe that universities are simply exploiting adjuncts so that they can spend more tuition dollars on non-academic niceties like facilities and stadiums, rather than improving classroom instruction. Students and faculty across the country are fighting for adjuncts to receive higher pay and the right to unionize.

Adjunct professors are among some of the lowest-paid positions at a typical university, similar to what a janitor working in the very same building might earn. On the other end of the spectrum, some faculty make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year as provosts, presidents, and chancellors of universities. Between 1970 and 2008, adjunct pay has decreased 49 percent, while college president salary has increased by 35%.

Adjunct faculty now make up a majority of the higher education instructors nationwide.

Adjunct faculty now make up a majority of the higher education instructors nationwide.

Profit Over Education

Academic capitalism is redefining the way we view education and the university system. University scholars seek support from funders hoping their findings will lead to lucrative, commercial applications, departments market courses to students as sure pathways to careers and universities replace tenure-track teaching positions with adjunct professors to protect the bottom line at all costs.


Mariah B (author) from OR on August 07, 2020:

Exactly! Your interpretation is spot on.

Overall, the biggest problem is that universities are not providing students with any options to save money. The three major textbook companies have pretty much a complete monopoly over the textbook industry, and it forces students to pay so much every term. Even paying money just to complete your homework.

I think universities should be about education, not making more money from broke college students.

Thanks for reading and I appreciate your thoughtful comment.

Rosina S Khan on August 07, 2020:

I have made two important interpretations from your article and think these are the main reasons that attribute to "the disturbing state of college education in the US."

First, textbook publishers are successfully destroying the used book market, as well as making an incredible amount of money selling overpriced access codes.

Second, universities replace tenure-track teaching positions with adjunct professors to cut off costs.

I loved reading this article, Mariah.