David Kestenbaum and Jacob Goldstein of NPR’s Planet Money assert that the rising cost of textbooks can, in part, be attributed to one simple economic tenet: the “principal-agent problem,” or as Kestenbaum and Goldstein jokingly refer to it, “the somebody else’s money problem.”
The principal-agent problem is most simply described as a conflict of interest that arises when the person who decides to buy something (the agent) isn’t the person who has to pay for it (the principal). Within the context of textbook adoptions, students are the principals, tacitly agreeing to let their professors choose course materials on their behalf. College professors act as the agents, and make the final decision regarding which textbooks will be required for their courses. The conflict arises when sales representatives from publishing companies present their textbooks to professors for adoption. They expand on the expensive extra features and attributes of the textbooks they are trying to sell and never mention the price of the items. Professors never think to ask about the price because it is the students who ultimately have to bear the burden of the cost.
Other factors contributing to the high cost of textbooks include a growing used textbook market, textbook rental options, the availability of illegal textbook downloads, and students choosing not to purchase the textbook at all. This creates a cyclical problem wherein students continue to find creative ways to avoid buying textbooks, and publishers continue to raise their prices to recover profit losses.
In an effort to maintain control of the textbook market, and offer cheaper solutions for students, some publishers are moving towards the production of E-textbooks. However, E-textbooks do not pose a perfect solution for students because there is no used market for them, and they cannot be resold.
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