Outside Yale Station there once was a green and white bumper sticker that read, “if you think education is expensive, try ignorance.”
Given the cost of some reading lists this semester, literal-minded Yalies might have considered giving ignorance a shot.
And for those enrolled in Yale College’s most expensive courses, the prices of texts are often overwhelming, the alternatives few.
Tallying the caviar of Yale courses is not an exact science because of reading lists that change over the first month of the semester and the availability of online discounts.
But, with a solar calculator and a little algebraic handiwork, the list of costly classes can be narrowed to a select, astronomically priced few. Not all are in the history department, not all are 400-level classes or junior seminars, not all are even humanities. All do, however, have price tags that top $200.
Among them is professor Jay Winter’s seminar on the First World War for which students were asked to purchase 13 books — the 14th is out of print — totalling $325.15.
Professor and students alike lament the high cost of the books, but said they see little alternative beyond Winter’s efforts to order paperbacks and his willingness to lend from his own collection.
Rather than assign a textbook or a course packet, what he says are the two less appealing alternatives, Winter ordered only two hardcover books and said he hopes “that the quality of the readings justifies the cost.”
Katharine Critchlow ’03, a student in the class said quality aside, she stopped buying when the Bursar billable total reached $280.
“You don’t have to buy all the books,” she said, “it’s just inconvenient if you don’t. He at least is trying to be very nice about it.”
Critchlow said she will read the books she doesn’t own in Cross Campus Library, where Winter put his entire reading list on permanent reserve. Indeed, professors frequently offer up permanent, 24-hour and 3-day reserved books as the alternatives for students with shallow pockets or no desire for ownership.
When it comes to course packets, the mark of a true Yale scholastic shakedown is the thick, black, plastic spine and a bill that exceeds $100. Matthew Smith, TYCO Copy’s digital image specialist estimated one third of students who come in to order packets complain about the price.
“I’ve seen students who can’t afford to buy a packet,” he said. “There are also pairs of people who decide to share one, and they order it loose so they can break it up. But they’re much more the exception than the rule.”
Beth Berkowitz teaches a course on Capital Punishment in Rabbinic Law. Her reading list costs $238.40 and includes a $116.50 packet from TYCO, which she said, “is pretty huge, but a real work of love on my part,” referring both to the effort put into constructing it and toward shielding students from high book prices.
Berkowitz officially asks students to buy three books in addition to the packet, two around $20 and one that gives a “good background of rabbinic literature” called “Back to the Sources” for $60, which, she said, she actually discourages her students from buying because of the cost.
“I’ve agonized over the issue of cost,” she added. “Last semester, in fact, I ordered few books and made up a course packet that was as small as I could get it, and then I put all the big chunks on reserve.”
But CCL’s reserve, according to many, is no poor Yalies’ panacea.
Putting the books on reserve, Berkowitz said, “was a dismal failure,” and she went on to call the system unpredictable and ineffective.
CCL desk attendant Cara Norris ’02 said she sees a good number of students using books on reserve but the system falls victim to logjams around midterms and finals when more students vie for a small, fixed number of available materials.
“I don’t think I would ever not take a class because it’s sometimes difficult to get a hold of books here,” she said, “but I’d probably end up not doing half the reading or something.”
In fact, Norris does all of her research for her senior project in CCL because, she said, every piece of Romantic poetry criticism has been put on permanent reserve by a professor teaching a class on it.
Professor Ted Bromund, who teaches History 404b: Sports in History 1840-1990 and prepared a $128.50 packet for his students, said the only alternative he offers for students who don’t want to purchase shiny new books for his class is the hope of finding used ones in Barnes and Noble.
The alternative, he said, is to assign less reading. “But” he added, “if you want to teach from primary sources, as I do, it’s not easy to reduce the page count, and thus the cost. I think they add a lot to the class, though, enough to justify their higher price.
“To some extent,” he continued, “this is an intractable problem. I remember semesters in college when I was none too happy about the cost of my books. On the other hand, if the class was good, I usually ended up feeling that the investment was worth it.”
But whether expensive classes are unavoidable, not all students are content with the status quo. History major Ariel Lambe ’04 said she thinks the university should take more of an active interest in what students are paying for course materials.
“If this school is committed to economic diversity,” she said, “they should make it easier for students to obtain books at a low cost or at no cost at all.”
And arguably there is one last alternative for Yalies: to simply take less expensive classes.
Spring semester for sophomore Sarah Post brought with it two separate course-related findings. The first is Environmental Studies 225: Human Creation and Destruction. It’s a group IV; it satisfies the natural science requirement; and the bulk of the coursework is posted online. So it’s cheap.
The second is a quote from French poet Hedi Kaddour: “– the man declares / That buying books will soon become a clear / Sign of derangement, yes, insanity,” which she said she thought was an interesting thought, though she doesn’t necessarily believe it.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”20037″ ]