Are we paying too much for books?

In spy movies, most transactions seem to involve suitcases stuffed with money. It’s almost a requirement of the genre; at some point, the deal goes down, the latch clicks open, and the sinister stacks of unmarked hundreds are revealed.

With shopping period over, I can’t help but wonder if Tyco, which refuses to take credit cards, is trying to run its business “Mission Impossible”-style. With individual course packets regularly going for over $60, and many students buying as many as five packets, you almost need a suitcase full of money to pay. The Yale Bookstore does take credit cards, a fact of which we will all soon be reminded when we receive our monthly Visa bills. After all, it’s hard to understand how a textbook can cost $170, or how a paperback that would normally go for $12.95 can be priced at many, many times that.

It’s funny, the things Yalies choose to care about. When Haliburton overcharges the U.S. government by millions of dollars for Iraq contracts, we rightfully call it price-gouging. When Florida hurricane victims are forced to pay sky-high prices for food and blankets, we angrily denounce it as price-gouging. But when New Haven copy stores make us pay hundreds of dollars for a few Xeroxed packets that will be completely worthless in four months, and when many Yale textbooks are more expensive than my Dell printer (literally), we shrug our collective shoulders and grumble that our schools books are “over-priced.” And semester after semester, we undergraduates collectively shell out, by the most conservative estimates, over $2.5 million without a word of protest.

For some reason, words like “textbooks” and “course packets” don’t quite get the blood boiling the way, say, “Halliburton” and “hurricanes” do. But let’s call a spade a spade: we, along with college students across the country, are being price-gouged. Textbook manufacturers may seem unlikely corporate villains, but they know most college students have no choice but to pay the prices they set. To guard against the dangerous possibility that we might simply reuse textbooks, new “improved” editions of the same textbook are constantly released. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with updating a political science book to include information about Sept. 11 or an advanced physics text to discuss recent discoveries. But, at the risk of sounding cynical, what exactly does Calculus 6th Edition include that Calculus 1st Edition lacked? Have we found previously undiscovered notes kept by Newton?

Many people might say grossly over-priced text books and course packets are annoying, but not worth the fuss I am making. They are wrong. This is not about the few extra hundred dollars I have to spend every semester. This is about standing up and fighting a much more disturbing trend: the widening gap in our society between those who can afford college and those who cannot. We all know that tuitions at Ivy League schools and across the country have gone through the roof in recent years, with Yale jacking up its rates 5 percent last year alone. America’s wealthy elite, well-represented on this campus, can afford to pay these astronomical tuitions, as well as the cost of books, without breaking a sweat. The rest of the country can’t. Of course, Yale gives out extensive financial aid, and pays for the book costs, of a vital segment of the student body. But the University can only afford to do this for so many students. What about the other students, so numerous, who receive some financial aid, but whose families have had to make huge sacrifices to get them the rest of the way? Out-of-control book prices hit these students hard, cruelly adding to an already hefty tuition burden. I had a great internship over the summer. Many of my friends, who have to pay for their own books, worked tedious jobs for a paycheck that will largely vanish into the cash registers of Tyco, York Copy and the Yale Bookstore.

Is this just an unhelpful rant against an unfair but unavoidable problem? I hope not; there is a lot that could be done immediately, if not to solve the problem, then at least to alleviate it. Yalestation books and TUBA (the used book agency) are great ways to purchase used books for a tiny fraction of the sticker price, but they are under-utilized, under-publicized and don’t offer many major textbooks. The YCC should demonstrate its genuine usefulness by working to expand these services. It should also allow students to buy and sell used course packets. Branford’s YCC representatives, Steven Syverud ’06 and Emery Choi ’07, have both vowed to push the YCC to take these and other ambitious steps — other representatives should follow suit. Professors must also be made aware of the problem, encouraged to stick with old editions of textbooks when new editions are virtually identical, and urged to post more course packet material online. And finally, Yale should conduct a study of Tyco, the Yale Bookstore and other key businesses to determine the profit made off each course packet and textbook sold.

Change for the better happens in small steps. There’s not much we Yale students can do about exploding tuition costs, but textbook prices are a problem we can and should address.

Roger Low is a sophomore in Branford.