Eighth grade was the lightest year of my life. For that one year, my public middle school channeled its blessed few resources into providing students with two sets of textbooks: one to remain in the classroom and one to remain at home.
In high school, I had to buy a bigger backpack to cart around all my course materials. I did not think too much of borrowing all these books from the library for the year, even if the state budget meant that some of them were ragged and outdated.
Then I got to college. Now I am at a university with an endowment of approximately $2 million per student, and yet I find myself digging into my summer savings, picking out dozens of Freshman Seminar books and preposterously-priced Tyco course packets.
I found myself wondering what in the name of the patron saint of books my pitifully-endowed public middle school had figured out that Yale University had not.
The books we purchase in college serve a variety of purposes, from ubiquitous free-weights to future office-wall decorations to that rudimentary educative function. But when trudging down into the basement of the Yale Bookstore for the third time to see if that Con Law casebook had come in yet, it dawned on me that with a Web site that tells me when my laundry is done, there must be something Yale can do for me about my books. Indeed, a school that has billions to spend on vacated pharmaceutical facilities, new residential colleges and sustainable food initiatives could certainly pick up the tab on the $3,000 it claims I should be spending on books each year.
Why not? With the stress and cost of book acquisition out of the picture, I would have more time to figure out exactly which classes I should be shopping and more money to support my GHeav habit. What’s more, it would cost Yale less to buy in bulk what our local suppliers dish to students at a steep markup. For roughly a million dollars, Yale could provide a uniquely and universally utile service.
The University probably won’t want to pay for all our books with its own money. But with a relatively small tuition increase of about $1,500, Yale could afford to buy our books, saving everyone money and saving us the hassle.
Books and course packets are just the beginning. If the University sincerely wants to deemphasize its historic focus on the humanities and social sciences, a reasonable step would be to give all disciplines equal overhead costs. Lab equipment and art supplies, too, are undue burdens on students’ wallets and should be similarly subsidized.
It well may be that students shopping more classes than they eventually take will end up with a textbook surplus that they intend to sell for profit. The opportunity to abuse this system is real and, given some Yalies I know, likely. With this concern in mind, here is a reasonable alternative: Yale purchases all the books and supplies, and checks them out to students. Students can then return them at the end of the semester or choose to purchase them from Yale at cost. Thus students can avoid the ridiculous sum of an Intro Psych textbook, but can choose to beef up their libraries if that was half the reason they took Directed Studies in the first place.
If all necessary course materials are distributed, say, the second week of shopping period, it may be that some prominent establishments such as Labyrinth Books, the Yale Bookstore and Tyco would miss their semiannual rush. I for one think that Yale’s priority should be its customers — er, students — and not local businesses. The bookstore can survive off overpriced fleeces and shot glasses, and if Tyco goes, maybe we will get our Doodle back.
I have long heard about the inefficiencies and shortcomings of the public sector, so I was not surprised when my high school replaced our library’s two dozen three-year-old PCs with brand new Macs while biology textbooks seemed to quietly anticipate the ruling of the Scopes Monkey trial. Yale University, an elite private research institution, is committing a kindred sin.
Jared Wigdor is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College.