College Tuition Is Expensive Enough, Let Alone the Textbooks


Final exams were coming, but I still could not afford the textbook for Botany 100. I was bagging groceries to pay college tuition and thought I could navigate freshman year just by being attentive in class.

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With nothing to cram from, I made my way to the library. But finding no botany texts in the stacks, I checked out the autobiography of Gregor Mendel, the “father” of genetics, whose field had been the major emphasis of Dr. Baker, my instructor.

So while my classmates were poring over the graphs and study questions in the textbook, I lay on my bed, reading about Mendel’s childhood illnesses, his interest in plants, and his stream of consciousness musings.

When I finally got to Mendel’s experiments growing green peas, I was pretty into it, having accompanied him on his “journey” since Day 1.

“You received a perfect score on the genetics section,” said Dr. Baker. “That’s never happened.”

I was no science genius. The D earned later in zoology confirmed that fact.

But acing the test made me wonder: Were textbooks necessary? Could students succeed while saving money, using free resources from the library, or from life?

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I revisited that question after landing a teaching job at a Chicago public high school. My third year, we had a teachers strike; in my eighth, the city textbook fund went broke, so I was left to improvise for my 128 pupils in freshman English.

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For literature and vocabulary, we harvested readings from free trial subscriptions to Scholastic Magazine. For grammar and writing, I composed my own work sheets, drills, and sample essays for distribution.

Initially, it was a ton of work. But there was a side benefit: Students were more attentive to the up-to-date stories and screenplays in the magazine. And they liked my “customized” usage exercises even better: Tyrone (laid, lay) in front of the TV, watching Walter Peyton beat the Washington Redskins.

I reflected on all of this last week, when my college writing students said the bookstore was charging a whopping $72 for our text.

Delia, who is a sophomore, sought to reassure me that English was among the bargains on her book list, which included texts for Psychology 2012, $95; Art 1201, $106.75; and Biology 1005, $200.50.

How can this be, when the bestselling hardcovers average only $25 at or Barnes & Noble?

A US Government Accounting Office report shows that textbook prices rose 40 percent between 2002 and 2007, and 186 percent between 1986 and 2004, so that a college student’s annual book bill averages $900!

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March 16, 2010