Textbook Culture Change: Is saving money on books taking away from the value of a Kalamazoo College education?

By Sarah Wallace

Professor of French Dr.Jan Solberg, pictured above, chooses her textbooks with much consideration for the edition, content, and cost. Photo by Sarah Wallace

Out of the many things that tuition covers at Kalamazoo College, buying textbooks is one of the only controllable expenses that students have that is crucial to the success of their education.

Students frequently bemoan the high prices of textbooks they buy at the bookstore and many have strategies for paying less. Students share textbooks, buy different editions from the one their professor has specified, or check out books from the library instead of buying them.

But are these “savings” really significant when the costs of textbooks are only a fraction of the cost of college tuition, room and board?

Professor Jan Solberg, Chair of the Romance Languages Department, argues that trying to save a few dollars by scrimping on books may hurt students more than help them. If students share books or use library books, they may be depriving themselves of one of the best ways of learning and retrieving information – writing in their books.

“Textbooks are the most important tool for a student’s education,” Solberg said. “I don’t think students make the connection that relative to the high cost of tuition, the extra few dollars you could save on textbooks per year is not that significant.”

Students often try to cut down on costs by buying different or out-of-date editions of their books. Frequently, students do not own the edition a teacher has specified. Solberg often sees this in her French language and literature classes.

“I spend hours choosing the edition I want students to have,” said Solberg. “There may be a great introduction I want us to read, or wonderful essays about the work’s historical context, or fabulous notes or great discussion questions. It’s also disruptive when I can’t even say ‘Please turn to page 30’!”

English professor Andy Mozina has similar concerns. He has had to make accommodations for those students who don’t have the edition he requested.

“It matters the most if it’s a critical edition,” said Mozina. “Students’ having the wrong page numbers is only a mild annoyance but I sometimes end up having to make Xerox copies for students whose editions don’t contain the things I want them to read.”

But not all professors or departments feel the same way.

“Typically, the content of another edition is not significantly different, so we just let students use the older ones, on the condition that they make themselves aware of any new or different material in the updated edition,” said Jim Langeland in the Biology department.

“We are very aware of the rising cost of textbooks, so we do what we can to reduce costs by saying that previous editions are okay,” said Ann Fraser, another biology professor.

Ultimately, cost is a factor in the faculty’s textbook decision making process. However, if the student cannot provide themselves with the proper materials for the class, then they rob themselves of their own education, despite the few dollars they may have saved.