I have had it with Tyco. They are overcharging students and getting away with it. The other day I went there to pick up two course packets, each about an inch thick, for “America in the Middle East.” I was surprised to hear that they cost $91 together. That seems too high a price for a service that amounts to photocopying paper.
Tyco does have to pay publishers for the reprinting of copyrighted material. On average, publishers receive about 10 cents per page in royalties from reprinting. I looked at a friend’s $92 course packet, which had about 550 pages. Even if Tyco was paying royalties for every page, that would be $55. I think that a generous guess for the costs of binding, labor and paper would be $15. Being in business for over 30 years, Tyco has probably become very cost-effective. This means that roughly $22 in $92, or 24 percent, represents Tyco’s lowest potential margin.
More data on the price of packets versus their costs will yield a weak argument, though. One would still have to make assumptions about Tyco’s unknown labor and input costs.
I will use a different approach to explain why I think that Tyco is overcharging, even if their labor and input costs are unknown. My assertion is that Tyco knowingly operates as a monopolist. This is enough to show that students are paying too much for course packets.
Once a professor chooses a store like Tyco to print course packets, that store assumes a monopoly on those particular course packets. I do not know anyone who has been able to purchase the same course packets at more than one store. Professors are probably unaware of the prices students face, and so they drop off all of their packets at one store. The problem is that Tyco, then, knowingly becomes the only seller of a necessary good. A monopoly is born. Tyco ceases to operate according to the laws of supply and demand. Given that these stores are profit-maximizing, the result is no less theoretical than practical. Students are necessarily paying the highest prices for these packets.
The inability to purchase a course packet elsewhere means that there is no competition. There are no economic forces to push down prices from their highest limits. The only force keeping prices somewhat in check is the fear that students will become privy to their cozy monopoly and boycott their packets. This force is not enough, though, to give students a fair deal. Without competition, we are paying the highest price for their packets.
I’d also like to begin a small tirade on what I consider the unsound business practices of Tyco. Have you ever looked at Tyco’s receipts? Here is an example of what you might find on a typical Tyco receipt: *#?___π__. What is that crap? Have you ever asked the cashier to give you a real receipt, with numbers that show how much you paid? In this case, they write out the receipt in pencil! It is almost as if they are taking every precaution to conceal exactly how much money they are making.
I also find it extremely unlikely that they do not take credit cards to save on commission. Really, can you think of any business that sells goods in excess of $100 and takes no credit cards, with the exception of your local drug dealer? Tyco knows that it will not discourage my business by limiting payments to cash or check. After all, they are the only store selling the course packets that I need. This inconvenience reiterates my point that Tyco knowingly operates like a monopolist.
I think that there are two solutions to this monopoly on course packets. The University could provide all course packets online. This would provide students with at least some alternatives. On one hand, they could cover the costs of ink and paper themselves and print their own course packets. Although more work, it would be cheaper. On the other hand, those who want to continue buying their packets at Tyco could, at lower prices. The online competition would force Tyco to lower prices. This solution would not be a financial stretch for the University, either. It already provides course packets online for some courses and covers the copyright costs itself. In addition, the University would gain from the small but nice gesture of protecting its students. Another solution would be to make it a mandatory Yale policy that professors distribute course packets to multiple vendors. Although this would introduce some competitive pricing, it might not be enough. Since the vendors near campus are few, there is a chance of collusion. I favor implementing both policies by next semester.
Why have I have focused on course packets when textbooks at the bookstore cost us so much more? In those cases, at least we do have some alternatives. If a textbook seems too high at the bookstore, we can choose to buy them elsewhere, often at discounted rates. Even the cheapest prices we find for textbooks online might be too high, but there is some semblance of competition in that market. More practically, though, there is almost no way for Yale students to fight high textbook prices because we represent such a small percentage of the global market. For these course packets at local vendors, however, we are their market. They may have a monopoly on our course packets, but we have a monopoly on their course packet sales. Let’s turn the tables on them.
Travis Torbati is a junior in Berkeley College.