Just what the professor ordered


Yale Law School Professor Ian Ayres is to be commended for his New York Times op—ed on the problem of textbook prices in college. He identifies a key problem:

IN time for the new school year, the Government Accountability Office has released a sobering report on the soaring price of textbooks. Over the past two decades, the report tells us, "college textbook prices have risen at double the rate of inflation."

We're used to paying $25 for a hardcover novel, but my casebook on contracts now sells to students for $103, and the best—selling general chemistry textbook (co—authored by my father—in—law) costs $148. At state universities, textbooks and supplies account for 26 percent of all student fees, including tuition. At junior colleges, they are a whopping 72 percent.

The G.A.O. report falls short, however, by attributing this run—up in prices to the development of "CD—ROM's and other instructional supplements." The real problem is the lack of price competition. A series of mergers has ensured that although there are hundreds of textbooks to choose from, the five largest publishers control 80 percent of the market.

It's easy for prices to drift upward when the person choosing the product doesn't really care how much it costs. Instead of competing on price, publishers compete for professors' attention with an excess of computerized bells and whistles.

Professor Ayres goes on to note that professors personally profit when they assign their own textbooks to students. An honest man, the good professor refunds his royalties to all of his own students who buy his own book.

The possible solutions offered by Professor Ayres may do some good. But the fact remains that because higher education is perceived as the key to a lucrative career, poeple will spend whatever it takes to get their children the union card for better jobs that an undergraduate or professional school degree has become.

Hat tip: Herb Meyer

Thomas Lifson   9 18i 05