In the last ten years, textbook prices increased 63 percent and are growing faster than all other college costs, including tuition and fees. Textbook publishing is an oligopoly. Due to the lack of competition, large companies completely control the prices of textbooks and other mandatory services sold to students. Pearson, in particular, stands out a head above the rest. Pearson monopolized standardized testing in K–12 and college textbooks, and they are currently sinking their claws into homework.
It seems like something out of a weird, hyper-capitalist dystopian future, but that future is happening now. Pearson and similar publishers sell homework to students through digital learning systems, like Pearson’s MyLab and McGraw-Hill’s Connect. Essentially, these companies expect and require students to pay for access to necessary coursework and grade information. For the most part, this also includes an electronic copy of a textbook that students cannot keep or resell, which undermines the used textbook industry.
I understand why instructors might outsource some of their work to these systems from big publishers. However, it is not fair, in this author’s opinion, to ask students to pay for it. If a professor created assignments of their own and asked students to pay to access the assignment, how would the student body and university react? Why, then, are current PSU students paying publishing companies for required coursework? Why does PSU expect us to pay for it?
What exactly are students paying for when they pay tuition and course fees if it does not include homework and homework grades? Is this shift toward education à la carte acceptable? Some quick back of the envelope math shows that just one class of 27 students using Connect brings McGraw-Hill $3,240 per semester. Just ten courses using learning management systems for three semesters a year comes up just under $100,000 going from students directly to publishers for access to their homework. A student taking two classes per term that use Connect is not that uncommon at least in the School of Business at PSU, and over three terms students would spend $720 just to access their textbook and coursework.
By slowly eliminating the demand for teachers to create and grade assignments, publishers created yet another market to be monopolized. Students are already trapped under the ever-increasing cost of new textbooks and near constant release of new editions that kill the resale value of used counterparts.
According to the most recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing for McGraw-Hill, digital sales have surpassed textbook sales. Digital sales increased 34 percent in just one year. McGraw-Hill and their competitors place priority on strategy that expands their reach and market saturation for digital learning systems.
I researched cases where students asked universities to intervene on their behalf, and I didn’t find too much. Single students at a few universities have spoken out about the impending monopoly over homework, but no organized groups have spoken out against it, which means the time to speak up is now.
Students need to voice their concerns to the administration. PSU’s board is reworking the budget following the HECC’s tuition increase decision, and a new president is on the way. Change is in the wind, and students need to latch onto this opportunity to make sure their concerns are known.
Without some intervention on the behalf of students, physical textbooks and teacher created homework may become a thing of the past. Once the market for digital systems matures, where will publishers set their sights next? We cannot allow for the further monopolization of education.
To bring this issue to the attention of the Associated Students of Portland State University, contact the Academic Affairs Committee at [email protected]. There is a current campaign directed at textbook affordability through ASPSU already, and adding goals related to digital systems will require involvement from the student body. If you don’t want to keep paying for your homework, start working now to set a limit on how far publishers can reach into your pockets.