A “Textbook Case” of Government Overreach

The Federal Textbook Act (FTA), signed into law in 2008 by President Bush, will soon take effect. Its purpose sounds nice:  ensuring that students have access to “affordable course materials” by lowering their prices. This happy outcome is supposed to be achieved by having faculty, students, administrators, bookstores, distributors, publishers, and institutions of higher education “work together,” without infringing upon academic freedom.

People are understandably concerned about the cost of higher education. Students often spend $1,000 per year on textbooks and class materials, and annual tuition increases are consistently higher than the average rate of inflation. So Congress, as it often does, asserts that it will help resolve this problem of high prices.

With the FTA, Uncle Sam enters the college textbook business and, more ominously, college classrooms. To begin with, the law requires colleges to report price information about all educational materials they use. In addition, publishers must provide to every faculty member considering a textbook “a description of the substantial content revisions made between the current edition of the college textbook or supplemental material and the [three] previous editions, if any.”

The justification for this intrusion into educational publishing—one of the most competitive industries in America—is the alleged need for more “transparency and disclosure” regarding the selection, purchase, sale, and use of course materials. All of the cost and content information covered can currently be requested by anyone who thinks it might be important in deciding whether to buy a book, but with the new law, for the first time, the government mandates that it be made available.

Let us be clear what is going on here. The FTA is nascent federal control of college instructional materials. No good can come of it. Government efforts at cost control will have unintended consequences, lowering textbook quality and probably spreading from “transparency and disclosure” measures to content regulation.

The genius behind our successful higher education system lies not in professors like us (much though we like to think so), but in the system’s decentralized, competitive nature. Unlike countries with top-down, centrally run universities, in the United States thousands of state and private colleges compete to attract students, faculty, and research grants. If Washington ran our university system, we would end up with the sort of moribund, second-rate system we see in European countries. Competition among universities is the key force disciplining America’s higher-education market.

Even more competitive than colleges is the market for higher-education materials, including textbooks. It’s true that these materials aren’t inexpensive, but that is because they are costly to produce. Publishers do not just print books. They also provide bundles of free supplementary materials to assist teachers and students: test banks, instructor manuals, Power Points, interactive websites, and videos. All of those materials must be produced, edited, marketed, and distributed. Most educational materials have short shelf lives—itself a product of American universities’ success at producing a constant stream of new research. Students would be short-changed if today’s textbooks contain only yesterday’s knowledge.

Naturally, some books change more rapidly than others. Political science textbooks have higher turnover rates than do calculus textbooks. The politics book that discusses President Bush beating Senator Kerry in the ancient 2004 election loses to the one with the 2008 results in it. That is what instructors want, so it is what the publishers provide.

Further evidence of the intensely competitive nature of the textbook market is the fact that only a few books emerge at the top of the heap and earn good profits. For each winner, there are scores of losers. Many authors (including one of us) have made less than the minimum wage for the time put into writing books that were losers. The authors and publishers tried, but there were too few adoptions for the books to cover costs so as to justify keeping it in production.

The textbook market is highly competitive—anyone can try getting into the business—which is great, as it encourages experimentation. If profits in the industry were very high, more firms would enter to get in on the action, but we do not see that happening. Textbooks and materials seem expensive, but that is not because of needless costs or exorbitant profits.

With the FTA, Congress declares its interest in “decreasing the costs to students” of attending college. The result, however, will be the opposite. To comply with this statute, colleges must burn up more administrator time producing mandatory reports of dubious value.

Were Congress truly interested in cutting the costs of higher education it would not add to, but repeal, most of the requirements for colleges to report endless statistical data to federal (and state) agencies, or to organizations like accrediting associations, which largely serve as enforcers for the federal government. Administrators spend large amounts of time on reports, thereby running up administrative overhead and the cost of college. Textbook reports are just the latest to be added to the list.

With the FTA, Congress threatens not only to decrease the quality of textbooks, but also threatens free speech and academic freedom. The intrusion is just beginning. Senator Dick Durbin, second ranking Democrat in the Senate, has proposed a bill that would give the Secretary of Education authority to give grants to produce free open-access textbooks. Political patronage thus could—and almost certainly would—be used to determine who gets taxpayer funding to produce educational materials to be distributed courtesy of the Department of Education.

That is a formula for rewarding “politically correct” books and stifling unwanted criticism. Federal officials should not have such leverage. Perhaps you’ve heard about the controversy over textbook adoptions for K-12 education in Texas, where one board picks textbooks for all public schools. If the conservatives are in charge, the liberals scream bloody murder over their choices—and vice versa. We have no doubt there is bias in the process.

Government control over K-12 books in Texas is bad enough; imagine having a federal agency dominate the production of textbooks for all higher education. We should keep the camel from getting its nose under the college textbook tent.

Editor’s note: A version of this article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review on April 14, 2010.