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Seol '14: A novel solution to the textbook problem

The steadily rising cost of textbooks is a problem that plagues all students. Opinions columnist Jan Cao '13 recently argued against costly textbooks ("Calculus and pirates," Sept. 28), citing students' "right to knowledge." And while Cao says, "I will not go so far as to suggest that we should all download free economics textbooks and Harry Potter movies from the Internet without feeling guilty," there is the implied suggestion that such behavior would be acceptable if it were accompanied by a feeling of guilt, as justified by "a balance between the right to knowledge and education and the protection of intellectual property." Indeed, she equates the Pirate Party's rise in Germany with Europeans' "greater civil rights and liberties." Such logic is problematic for three reasons.

First, Cao's assertion that education is actually a right goes sorely unsubstantiated. After all, rights are valuable because they represent something so fundamental to human worth that they must be universally respected. Granted, individuals have a right to information to some extent. For example, the American justice system provides Miranda rights protections because of the probable due process violations that would result if we placed the onus of knowing criminal law on the accused.

But inherent to discussions of textbooks is the context of higher education. And while peoples' lives would most certainly be improved with more education, to claim college education as a fundamental right is not a trivial matter.

Second, the actual discrepancies being discussed cannot be ignored. Affordable alternatives to Cao's expensive options exist. Students may rent textbooks or borrow them from their schools' libraries or through systems like interlibrary loaning. Cao lambasts high tuition for being another barrier to education but fails to consider alternatives like state schools or community colleges. Hence the "right to knowledge and education" that Cao advocates is actually the right to own a textbook instead of borrowing it, or the right to attend a top private educational institution instead of a publicly funded college. Such tenuous distinctions clearly cannot qualify as rights. Should Brown be compelled to accept every student who applies?

Third, even if higher education were a right, what can it justify? Perhaps there is an argument for increased government subsidies, but since when has rights protection justified coercion of the private sector? The government upholds due process by providing public defenders' offices, not by mandating that private law firms charge less. Proliferation of such practices would quickly drive private entities out of business, creating a dearth of their services and counterproductively raising the access barrier for such rights. Rights-based arguments are simply economically insolvent. If anything, we should encourage competition by not fixating on a small, widely used set of textbooks.

That being said, students have legitimate complaints about the rising cost of textbooks. Though we may not have an absolute right to cheaper textbooks, there is an intuitive unfairness that we as students and consumers of education that have already paid tuition can be further required to pay for expensive textbooks. If I were to take a taxi, surely I should not expect to have to compensate the driver for his gasoline on top of the cost of the trip. If we pay for a service, we should not be obligated to also pay for the goods necessary to render that service, because of the expectation that the latter costs are included in the former.

So here is an idea. Brown should buy enough textbooks for an entire class and lend them to students, defraying costs if necessary through tuition increases. Of course, the general student body should not be forced to pay for textbooks for less popular courses. But we can limit what courses Brown provides the textbooks for  — and the costs that it would subsequently pass on to students — through student body referendums or special administrative panels. Ideally, we would subsidize textbooks for courses among all fields such that students will benefit equally, but we could consider allowing students to opt out of the program, thereby avoiding fees at the expense of having to buy their own textbooks.

Internalizing the cost of books within the cost of tuition allows greater access to education. Poorer students — whose tuition will be more subsidized by financial aid — will effectively pay less for their textbooks than richer students. Additionally, students will be free to take whatever courses they want, without the perverse incentives of textbook price discrepancies encouraging humanities over the sciences. Any problems with information asymmetry, as exists with insurance, can simply be solved by eliminating any option to opt out.

Having the University rather than students buy textbooks also lowers costs overall. First, the University has more leverage to secure deals with publishers. Second, the University becomes more sensitive to price, thereby incentivizing cost-averse behavior. No longer will professors force students to buy the newest editions at vastly higher prices when earlier editions would suffice.

At the end of the day, it does little good to complain about tenuous rights violations in an attempt to rationalize our behavior. Instead, let's be proactive and look for solutions that we can all work together on and benefit from.

Young Seol '14 is a chemistry and economics concentrator from Iowa City, Iowa. He can be reached at j_young_seol@brown.edu.


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