Given the global financial crisis, parents sitting around the kitchen table worrying about paying the University’s $42,297 tuition fee should add another exorbitant cost to the list—textbook prices.
“There is nothing else to call it but exploitation,” said Kelsey Grogan ’12, regarding textbook prices at the University’s campus bookstore, Broad Street Books. “I had to buy a new biology textbook for $250; I can’t even sell it back because a new edition comes out every year.”
This situation, however, is not exclusive to the University. On a national level, an old edition of a college textbook retains virtually no buyback value as soon as a new edition is released.
“You can’t sell the old book edition,” said Elio Distaola, Director of Public and Campus Relations at Follett Higher Education Group, the marketing liaison for Broad Street Books. “It won’t have any value unless the professor says it does.”
According to Distaola, new editions, as well as shrink-wrapped books, must always be bought new and are not acceptable as buybacks.
College of Social Studies (CSS) majors are among the hardest hit by the high prices of textbooks. The junior colloquium syllabus requires students to purchase a four-volume collection by Ludwig von Mises that costs $195. While only a few chapters in the collection are used in class, the books are shrink-wrapped and cannot be sold back.
In addition to this volume, sophomores in the CSS program must buy textbooks for three trimester courses, a colloquium and all other non-major classes.
The sophomore history tutorial alone has 35 required readings. Costs exceed $1,000 for the nine-week class.
Since many of the books in the CSS program are from rare copyrights or University of Chicago primary sources, they are difficult to come by outside Broad Street Books. This forces students to pay the University bookstore’s prices, no matter how high.
To make matters worse, sophomores like Max Rothstein ’11, who is in the CSS program, cannot return books at the end of each semester.
“Since we have comprehensive exams, I have to own all my books until the end of the year,” Rothstein said.
At the end of the semester, the University’s bookstore also makes a large profit by buying back used books from students for significantly less than they were originally sold.
According to the Broad Street Books website, students may receive up to 50 percent of their money back for selling their books back to the store. Marketable books, however, such as Machiavelli’s “The Prince” and Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” are bought back for only 11 percent and 14 percent of their original sale price, respectively.
Similarly, Broad Street Books sells the textbook “Prelude to Political Economy” by Kaushik Basu new for $45 and buys it back for $4: eight percent of its original cost.
This is an example of the profit that can be made based on the disparity between buyback prices payed to students and resale prices charged by Broad Street Books; used books are typically resold by the bookstore at 75 percent of their original price, regardless of their buyback price. Taking into account that used books are bought back by the store and resold again, a single book can continue to generate profits for years.
Not all students choose to pay the prices at Broad Street Books; some instead turn to the Internet for better deals.
“I often go to Amazon.com, but it’s a lot of extra work,” said Jared Keller ’09.
Sites like Amazon.com often sell used books with less-than-ideal communication methods—purchases cannot be expedited or tracked, and students agree that this makes the buying process unfavorable to those needing their books before the semester’s start.
Nevertheless, the popularity of purchasing books online has been growing among students, and this shift has not gone unnoticed by Broad Street Books.
“We have seen competition growing for a number of years,” Distaola said. “I attribute it to increasingly savvy customers.”