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The great paradox of saving on textbooks

By in Opinions

ZACH TENNENT 

Opinions Editor 

Astronomical textbook prices are the bane of any university student’s existence. While the nature of the beast is unquestionable, we may have actually gotten ourselves into this mess.

It’s no question that textbook prices are traditionally a rip-off for the ages. College Board, an American non-profit corporation recently estimated that textbooks account for $1,225 USD in the annual budget of a public university undergraduate.

In the life of a student, when money is already typically tight, these prices can be understandably frustrating. What’s even more frustrating, however, is the not-so-hidden truth that this is a hole we’ve dug for ourselves.

Year after year, basic intro-level textbooks — such as those produced by publishing giants like Pearson Education — are released in newer and pricier editions. In other words, with every attempt to avoid buying new books comes another gimmick by their manufacturers to make buying new seem more necessary.

In certain cases, it would seem that books in some subjects are updated and re-released quicker than the field itself can even generate relevant new content — like numerical sciences and mathematics. This would perhaps explain the all-too-common trend of books being “updated” with little more than rearranged or retitled chapters.

While most seasoned students seem to recognize the swindle for what it is and opt to plod along with “outdated” used books, they aren’t the prime target for these updated editions anyway. Re-issues target inexperienced — read: first-year — students who are more likely to play by the rules and follow their syllabi.

The other way these new books are made to seem like a necessity is through the inclusion of often unnecessary bonus features. These range from access codes to online labs to audio discs and more — additions that one can supposedly only get along with a brand new textbook.

As someone who’s taken his fair share of disparate intro-level electives, I can safely say I’ve never taken a class where the use of anything other than the book was actually compulsory. I’ve typically found my grades to be satisfactory without ever having to go beyond the book.

Furthermore, while the University of Saskatchewan campus bookstore will only order and carry new copies of the current edition of textbooks, most 100-level professors I’ve ever had or heard about have assured the class on the first day that for the money you save, used textbooks and outdated editions provide good value and are perfectly compatible with the course content.

A scant few professors will insist on students having the most current editions, but unfortunately by the time you go to your first class, you’ve likely already bought most, if not all, of your books.

Making matters worse, if you haven’t bought your books by the time of your first class, good luck finding a used copy to snatch up after the fact.

So, in essence, our bargain hunting has left students with two general options at best: play it safe and pay the inflated, gargantuan prices for new books or risk buying used books from stores or other students with no definite guarantee of refundability.

It’s funny that our desire to save money, give textbook companies and bookstores less and make use of old books that we don’t need anymore has only led us to have to pay more when buying new books is the only option.

At the risk of sounding defeatist or mopey, it would seem that no matter how much we think we’re saving when we avoid giving textbook companies more of our money, they always find a way to make up for their losses at our expense.

A bargain may seem like a bargain, but rest assured: when it comes to buying textbooks, the house always wins.

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