Thursday, September 3, 2015

Harry challenges the cost of text books

Harry was known (by his family at least) to get a little angry about things he found unfair. His story on this page illustrates an issue that bothered him at best, and how he tried to make a difference. He wrote it to his younger cousins who had children heading to college, when he was in his mid-80s.

Harry took classes here.
Talking about books earlier today brought to mind a memory I’d like to share with you. As you know, I retired in 1986 and the following year I started taking courses at the University of Maryland. The first few years it was free for senior citizens, but then they started charging a nominal sum, about 100 or 150 dollars a semester. When I stopped, about 15 years later, I think it was 2002 or 2003, it was up to about 250 dollars a semester. I usually took one or two courses each semester and in 15 years I had accumulated enough credits to … ah, but that’s another story. What triggered this one is the cost of text books.

While I was spending only 100 to 200 bucks for books, some of the kids were spending anywhere from 400 to 500 to as much as 800 dollars. Some were having a hard time, even buying used books at discount prices. Anyway, I got so mad about it that I wrote some letters – to the President of the University, to the Chancellor, to the State Legislature, and to the Governor. The ex-Governor, who had been out of office for several years and who had been teaching a course in government and politics which I had taken, told me who to write to and what buttons to push. He and I were the same age and had pretty similar life experiences, except that he became a politician while I became a civil servant. Anyway, we became good friends.

So I wrote all these letters complaining about the exorbitant cost of text books. Almost all text books are published by universities, which organize their own publishing companies and operate their own presses. Almost all text books are written by professors at these schools. When I began looking into the business, I found all kinds of people who had their fingers in the pot. In the book publishing business, most new books today run 25 to 35 bucks. In the text book business, most books today run 60 to 80 bucks, and some even more. That’s a national average. And it’s inflated beyond all reason, because too many people get a piece of the action and depend on it. It will take a revolution to bring the price down to reasonable levels again.

Well, my letters were discussed at a session of the state legislature, which only meets for two or three months a year, and for a while it became a hot subject for debate in the university system, but no politician took it up as a “cause” and after a while it just drifted away as an issue.

I truly believe that the cost of text books is a scandal that will someday explode on the national scene, but some smart politician will have to push it so the media will pick it up and start harping on it. For a while, I got some people to start thinking about it.

If anyone wants to pursue this issue, I’m sure Harry would be proud. Let us know what you find out.

In this 2006 photo, Harry and Jeanette waited in a University of Maryland theater lobby to see grandson Mark perform with Cornell University's improv comedy team. Harry felt at home on campus, where he took courses and volunteered for 15 years post-retirement. (Also, UMD was Jeanette's workplace for 20 years and granddaughter Sandy's alma mater.) Never mind that the cost of textbooks maddened Harry, he thoroughly enjoyed mingling with his young classmates, as he revealed in an earlier post on this blog: "The value of learning and journaling, according to this self-educated man"


  1. Les Evjen wrote:

    Harry's complaint about the scandalously high cost of textbooks 30 years ago was a prophecy of the "turning" in the higher education mission from learning to profit. Greed, it would seem, has replaced lead.

  2. Al Kliman wrote:

    This one really hit a responsive chord with me. Like Harry, I have been taking courses at UMD, and I just paid nearly $400 for books in ONE course!