A while back, when I was new and fresh in the academic adventure, I expressed my dismay about the cost of textbooks. As professors are wont to kindly say, they are helping us “save” money by continuing to use older editions of texts. Such beneficence!

My calculus text is out of print. The beloved 4th edition of Calculus, Early Transcendentals 4th Edition (1999), has been replaced by the 5th Edition (2002). The 4th edition is required, at my school, for three sequences of calculus. Most science majors are required to take the first two sequences, and a small subset must take all three (and then some!).

Think about it. The school requires its students to use a finite resource, i.e., the textbook. There is a limited supply that, by definition, decreases each year. Some books wear out after too much abuse, some books are kept by students for future reference, and some are held by other students for at least 3 semesters. The number of students enrolling in calculus classes is a constant. It make sense to assume that a constant demand for a shrinking resource induces a stress on the supply, and price, of the product. In the college textbook world, I think that means that the price the market will bear for used textbooks is higher than if the supply was infinite. Our professors are saving us money by forcing us to buy used textbooks, but demand and pricing are driving prices higher. I think we are trapped in a paradox.

There are several students in my calculus class that still, after 2 weeks, cannot buy a textbook. I would have gone insane by now.

I do want to buy my favorite accessory, the student solutions manual, which I have used with great effect in earlier math classes. Guess what? The publisher no longer supports the 4th edition student solutions manual. Why should they?

Today, I found, after a long search, a student solutions manual. If you followed the link, you know that some enterprising person has managed to put the solutions manual (at least the questions and solutions) on the web. You will also see that the basic service is free (good enough for me), but the premium features require a subscription. Looks like the marketplace has provided yet another source of profit for someone other than the publisher and the school.

Maybe, when I take an economics course, I can study this market in more detail. Maybe our economics department should, too, and forward the results to our school officials. Or maybe the textbook market is like the health insurance market, just too complex for simple students to understand and too unwieldy for bureaucrats to manage.

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