College Students Increasingly Illegally Downloading Textbooks for Free

Who could blame them?


Marquette La

As students settle into the new academic year, they're also getting savvier about the high costs of their education. "It's hard (if not impossible) to know just how prevalent this practice is," writes Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post, but "more students are illegally downloading college textbooks for free."

She highlights a survey last month from the Book Industry Study Group, which had some major takeaways:

  • Students report a gradual decline in the use of both core textbooks and learning management systems with a somewhat increased usage of online study guides, suggesting that pedagogical material is becoming more flexible in ways students value.
  • Students continue to become more sophisticated in acquiring their course materials at the lowest cost as illicit and alternative acquisition behaviors, from scanned copies to illegal downloads to the use of pirated websites, continue to increase in frequency.

The group surveyed 1,600 students, 25 percent of whom said they or someone they knew illegally downloaded textbooks. That's up 8 percent from the previous year.

Strauss also notes data from a 2013 Government Accountability Office study. It shows that textbook prices nearly parallel the astronomical inflation tuition and have gone up 82 percent in the last decade. An American Enterprise Institute Paper indicates that in the last 35 years textbooks have gone up a jaw-dropping 812 percent – hundreds of percentage points higher than general consumer prices, new houses, or even medical services.

Although students do by a wide margin prefer hard copies of their coursework and illicit copies can be spotty, any kid clever enough to get into university ought to realize that spending on average over $1,000 annually on books that have virtually no application and little resale value the day the semester ends is not a wise investment.

Deep web news site challenged itself to find books for a range of classes at different universities and was able to get them "one by one" almost "immediately." They found "Ebookee and TextbookRevolution, [which] focus more on math and science textbooks. Others, like Free-ebooks and Freebookspot, have a deeper selection of humanities-related tomes." They also found success with a site called Textbooknova.

"It's so easy to find somebody posting a scanned copy" online one master's student at George Washington University recently told The Wall Street Journal. The Journal that it's also easy to just rent, borrow, or completely forego textbooks, so publishers are spiting themselves with their high prices.

Textbooks are just the tip of the iceberg of university costs. More and more young people are opting out of traditional college as debt soars and they realize that trade schools, code academies, and other alternatives like massive online open courses are quicker, more effective paths to education and employment. 

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  1. Overpriced cartel undercut by black market?

    Say it ain’t so!

    1. Black market? That’s what they are calling looting now?

  2. Yeah, well, what do they expect? I’m taking an accounting class now with a professor who was kind enough to tell us there were not any discernible differences between the most recent edition of the textbook for the course and the last 3-4, which were a couple hundred dollars cheaper. e-books and rentals are becoming more commonplace now, which certainly helps, but it’s still an absurd racket.

    1. Aren’t the credits still by the window and the debits by the door (depending on the orientation of the desks in your classroom)? I doubt basic accounting principles have changed much in fifty years, so why new editions all the time?

      1. Because they have uninformed customers that needlessly purchase things.

      2. if mom and dad are paying there is no incentive for the student to find a way to procure the cheapest solution.

        1. True if mom and dad are just directly paying the bills. If they give you $1000 for books for the year, there’s a good incentive to save as much as you can for beer money.

      3. They have new editions all the time so that people will keep buying new books instead of buying used copies.

        1. There is definitely a racket aspect to it. Whenever I get the “new, updated” version I check it against the current one and almost all the changes are cosmetic. Problem is that, in most cases, the older editions of history texts disappear pretty quickly and so are hard to find.

          Campus bookstores are also part of the problem: monopolies on textbooks for the most part.

          My solution was to dispense with mandatory textbooks for intro classes. I tell my students the exam questions come from the lecture notes. If they come to class, pay attention, and take notes, they’ll be fine.

          1. I had a few professors who used Dover books whenever they could. So nothing cost more than $15. They really have a pretty great selection of text books for certain subjects.

            1. I use Dover books sometimes. I have a colleague who likes to use Schaum’s Outlines for some courses. The main downside to Dover books is you usually have to write your own problem sets, which is doable but time-consuming.

        2. I took a physics class at Memphis State, where the prof was selling one of his “books” for the lab. It was 20 pages of tear outs that you would fill in while you did various experiments. It was $40 or some nonsense.

          I split the cost of the book with my lab partner and turned in my copied lab sheets. It worked for most of the semester until the prof got wind of it (the TA grading the lab didn’t give a shit). I was told that I had better turn in the real version of the lab next time.

          So I started turning in the real sheets, and my lab partner turned in the copied ones. When the prof called us in to yell at us my lab partner said that he didn’t see why it was fair I could turn in 10 labs on copies, but he was getting shanked the first time.

          We ended up getting away with it, but the prof never cut us any slack on the tests after that. What a tool he was.

          1. So you got to flout the unspoken rules, but you still want insider treatment (getting graded less rigourously). Does that seem like anything other than “I want my actions to not have consequences?”

            If you want to play the smug slickster role than it helps to be slick enough not to rely on favors from the people you are sticking your tounge out at. Basically you want everyone to treat you like your parents. “Oh that Jimbo sure he openly defied us, but isn’t he so conniving and clever.” The world doesn’t work that way thank goodness.

            1. Lighten up

            2. C- for no mention of publisher kickbacks

            3. Rules without sense beget disrespect for the rulemaker. Responsibility is not a one-way street.

            4. Um, he was a tool for gouging his students for $40 for some stupid handouts, not for grading my buddy and I more rigorously.

              He had every right to grade however he wanted. I don’t dispute that.

    2. My various accounting books were the most expensive of all the books I bought in college. They’d frequently run around $200. Ugh.

    3. I had a finance professor who was like your accounting professor. The most current edition of the textbook was the 9th edition. The professor told the entire class that the only difference between the first edition and the 9th edition was the dates used in the end of chapter problems. Everything else was exactly the same.

      Screw those textbook publishers and their gouging ways.

  3. I was always most annoyed by the fact that so few classes actually utilized the “required” book more than 2 or 3 times.

    1. Yeah, that was the worst when they had you buy a $200 book that you read 3 chapters out of.

    2. The prices, the frequencies of new editions, etc., all demonstrate how complete the scam really is.

  4. Unless it has problems you need to work, textbooks tend to be unnecessary anyway. When I was in college a lot of professors were good enough to put a copy of the textbook on reserve at the library, so you could use it if necessary or wanted to work problems.

  5. Goddammit. Don’t these little penny-pinching thieves understand they’re prolonging the bubble burst past its due?

  6. Well, I am pretty sure the feds have ensured that campus police departments can deal with this problem. This is nothing but a few dozen no knock SWAT raids and four or five “accidental and tragic” shootings of the little miscreants and their little dogs too will not solve.

  7. Why aren’t text books all ebooks at this point? Seems like really the best application for the format. And if they can figure out some effective DRM for them, it eliminates the used book market (which is actually the thing I most dislike about ebooks: if I can’t resell it, then I don’t really own it, I’m just renting it and I want to pay a lot less than I would for a hard copy that I can resell).

    1. Because publishing companies and university book stores make a fortune selling the books. It is all one big racket and has been for decades. Even before the advent of e-books, the publishers and universities tried to stop the used book market and sued Kinkos to keep professors from creating their own custom course materials. To control the used book market, text books would be needlessly updated every couple of years. Even though the subject, say basic biology or chemistry, hadn’t changed, they would publish a new edition of the text book for the single purpose of rendering the used books useless and force students to buy new books.

      1. See my comment above on this.

        1. Depending on what area you taught, I would think it wouldn’t be that hard to teach history using only materials in the public domain. You can download thousands of books that are in the public domain for free on Kindle and Nook. This includes a huge number of history texts on virtually any subject.

          You teach medieval right?

          1. Raven’s gonna get some hard-hittin’ niggas, and teach medieval on yo ass!

            1. It is one hell of a tough freshman into class.

          2. No, my specialty is early America. But the intro course I teach is World History 1500-present. So, content comes from the lectures. Homework assignments are primary sources available on open websites. Two assignments come from extra reading based on books on reserve in the campus library.

            Part of my argument is that I’m paid to teach, not to assign textbooks chapters. But, in addition, World History is required for all students in the College of Arts & Sciences. I refuse to make students drop $100+ on a book for a one off class that most of them don’t want to take anyway.

            For upper division classes, I do assign readings but most of those come from academic titles which they can usually get via Amazon or similar.

            For grad students, I just tell them to suck it up. Although I do tend to assign a lot of articles available from databases the university library subscribes to.

            1. I once came up with a list of what I thought would be the ideal readings for an American Revolution to the Civil War survey class. No textbooks or surveys just a collection of primary sources. I forget now what they all were. But it was the Federalist Papers, the Lincoln Douglas Debates, Democracy in America and three or four other things. Go through the dates and chronology in class and then have the readings give the context and the intellectual discussion of what was going on.

              1. That sounds good. I can’t remember all the readings I assign for World History right now but they include “elite” type documents like Bousset’s justification for absolutism and the Chinese “Mandate of Heaven.” I also have them compare and contrast the Declaration of Independence with the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen.

                But then they also read excerpts from the WWI diary of a British soldier and an nineteenth century immigrants account of a voyage to South America.

                1. I wouldn’t even know where to begin teaching a class that broad. I would start I guess with Luther and do the 95 thesis.

                  The problem with a class like that is that it would quickly turn into a political philosophy class if you were not careful. If you get down in the weeds of the various European wars, you quickly go down a very long rabbit hole. If you don’t, however, you end up just giving an intellectual history from Luther, to Locke, to Rospierre to Marx and Lenin. That must be a tough course to teach.

                  1. Yeah, I had to reinvent it a few times. The first version, I spent about 20 minutes on the Thirty Years War. The second time teaching it, I was bored!

                    I split it into three units: 1500-1750 and look at various empires; 1750-c. 1900 and focus on revolutionary changes (political, industrial, technology); then 1890-c.1990 which focuses on the modern world.

                    I probably do more ideology than most people. But I actually prefer that course (now I have a handle on it) to teaching the US intro course. There is a lot more variety and I get to insert things that most people don’t. I suspect I’m one of the very few World History people around who mentions both Rothbard and The Road to Serfdom in my lectures.

                    1. The other problem with that course is that 1500 is just a nice round number. The modern world didn’t begin at 1500. It really began in the 14th Century with the black plague and the papal split. That is what killed the medieval world and started the modern world. You can’t understand what happened in the 16th Century without understanding that.

                      For example, the way the English reformation is taught always seems horribly inadequate. It is always of course Henry VIII wanting a divorce. They usually will do an okay job of giving Henry’s side and how divorces were not a huge deal for the church and the importance of coming up with an heir. But what they fail to mention is Wycliff and his intellectual children in the English intellectual elite’s role in it happening. The majority of the country wanted to stay Catholic and remained so in secret after it happened. The entire thing was driven and completed by a small group of elite thinkers and forced on the population. That part is never told.

                    2. I agree. My first week is actually a lot of background examining the rise of the Ming, the Inca, and Mexica. I talk about the challenges of people like Erasmus and the importance of the post-black death rebuilding in Europe.

      2. I’m sure you could convince Richard Branson to start up an all e-book university. Of course, it would suck and have little to no prestige value, but I’m sure you’d still attend right. Oh what’s that you want the prestige of an established university, but you don’t want to play by their rules. You must be really special to be that arrogant. Fields Medal recipient maybe? No one makes anyone go to college, or even take a class that requires a text book. You can get a literature degree without every picking up a text book.

        I took an elective class at Penn whose only reading was War and Peace. Of course, literature degrees aren’t very useful in the job market, but again trade offs. You want the STEM degree play by the STEM rules. McDonalds won’t make you buy any textbooks.

        1. Yeah, a college’s prestige comes from its textbook requirements. That’s definitely not a specious argument, no sirree.

      3. Don’t forget the companies that deliver these books. They’re getting a cut of the racket too.

    2. Strangely, I find a lot of students WANT a paper book rather than the e-version. I don’t get that either.

      And some companies are actually moving to a more rental-like approach e.g. dropping prices for one semester access or allowing students to download one chapter.

      1. They have found that people retain information better by writing out notes rather than typing them or using a laptop. Along the same lines, I would guess people retain information better reading from a paper book and highlighting and making notes in the margin than they do from using an ebook.

        1. Possibly. Although I don’t think the average freshman has figured out what studying technique works best for them. Especially given that most of them haven’t studied much in high school.

          Hint: earning a 4.3 GPA in high school without ever studying neither prepares you for college nor means you are really smart.

          1. What about earning a 3.0 in high school and never studying? That is what I did.

            My father always told me that to get through college you had to have three skills, reading, writing, and reasoning. If you had those it was no sweat. And he was right. People always say “I don’t know how to study”. What they are really saying is “I don’t know how to read with precision and digest the information into cogent notes, which is another way of saying you don’t know how to properly read, write and think.

            1. No doubt. But I suspect many/most students earning 4.0 today would struggle to earn a 2.5 in the 1970s (when I was in high school). Apart from watering down academics, I doubt most of them survive the emotional trauma of teachers who were sarcastic and/or yelled at them.

              I believe you’re correct on the reading/writing issue. But I just don’t think it gets taught much. One of the things that is always pushed is that our classes must have a “critical thinking” component. I flummoxed some people when I asked them how any college course could NOT have critical thinking.

              1. That puzzles me as well. The older I get the more I consider myself lucky to have gone to various backwater and unfashionable schools where the new “everyone gets a trophy” mentality had not yet taken hold. I can honestly say I had some really tough old school professors in college and in law school. People who were smart and could just be merciless. I had a philosophy prof who was this gorgeous Chinese woman we all called the Dragon Lady. Man did she earn that moniker.

                Part of getting an education is learning how to fail and having your nose rubbed in your ignorance and short comings. If you never get that you never develop a realistic view of who you are and what you are and are not good at doing. More importantly, you never develop an appropriate respect for the subject. If no one ever kicks you around and makes you feel stupid and inadequate once in a while, you quickly forget just how hard it is to be know a subject or be good at something. We are cheating our kids so badly these days.

              2. My english teacher in high school,who was also our WRs coach used to say that football was the beat taught subject in public schools because it was the only one they didn’t try to make easy.

                1. The thing is antisocialist, the kids want that. They want to be challenged. Making everything easy just makes it seem like a waste of time.

          2. earning a 4.3 GPA in high school without ever studying neither prepares you for college

            Actually it did. This “wait till you get to X, then it’ll be hard and you’ll have to work!” thing kept being said for every level X-1.

        2. Writing things down by hand definitely helps. I took loads of notes in college, but hardly ever went back to them to study. Of course it helps that I was mostly in fields where you have to understand things more than recall facts. I also never wrote anything in my texts, so ebooks would probably have worked well for me.

      2. From the engineering perspective, its much quicker to flip through a hardback book looking for that one formula than a e-book. Plus it’s easier to take notes in the book if the professor allows the book for tests.

        1. This. I still print out any industry specs I need so I can jot down notes, calcs, etc. for whatever I’m working on. If it’s important enough I scan that and store it electronically.

        2. Agreed. I have an e-reader filled with fiction books, but when I got a new job and I needed to skill up in SQL and WPF, I didn’t consider for even a second about getting a digital edition.

          Flipping back a forth between pages, keeping multiple book marks that are easily visible and easily getting from the index to where you need to be all make dead tree editions much superior to digital editions, IMHO.

    3. My kids’ Catholic High School now requires I-Pads and most of their books are online. While most of the downloads have been in the $5-10 range, there was $90 required download for one class which made me unhappy.

      1. I see these kids walking to school with giant backpacks looking like pack mules. Doing it digitally sure makes more sense. Also, how many times when you were in school did you walk off and leave your book at home? I did that more than a few times. E books eliminate that problem. Even if the kid forgets his IPad, just keep a couple of extras in the classroom for kids who forgot theirs to use.

    4. effective DRM


  8. I always found, when I went to re-sell my books back to the campus bookstore, that a new edition was coming out the following year and they wouldn’t buy those books back. Happened with at least 1/2 of the books I bought any given year. I would have loved to have been able to download the fucking things, legally or not. Or even to have been able to buy the hard copies online.

    1. Even when they buy them back it’s bullshit. A new World History books can run $100. The bookstore might buy it back for $15 then turn around and sell it for $65 used the next semester.

      I’ve always argued they should be selling both new and used books at cost and making profit off athletic gear, school clothing, and general office stuff.

      1. Sell your books on Amazon then. Yes middle men take their cut. That shouldn’t be surprising.

        I’m a dumb hick socon and I was able to figure out how to not get taken by the campus bookstore. Surely you cosmopolitian libertarians shouldn’t struggle with this.

        1. I just sold them directly to the kids the next semester. We’d split it down the middle between the prices that the bookstore would buy and sell used (e.g. $40 in the above example).

          1. That’s even smarter. Mailing the sold books off when the post office is a subway ride away isn’t that appealing on option.

  9. If you’re lucky enough you get a prof who writes his own course notes. But this happens more with upper-level classes.

  10. It’s not just college students. Plenty of people who are interested in getting quick-and-dirty knowledge about a subject can torrent the 101 (or even graduate-level) texts and spend a weekend expanding their education for free. Beyond widely available texts, now that high-quality lectures are routinely recorded and made available for low prices (see the RP Home school or Liberty Classroom, not to mention all the university lectures available on youtube), the old educational model is dying quickly.

    As with most things related to publishing and the internet, this just means that the old business model of producing an insanely labor-intensive, graphics-filled textbook and then twisting kids’ arms into paying $100 for it is collapsing, and there’s an emergent market for new publishing solutions.

  11. spend a weekend expanding their education for free.

    I, literally, could have completed my studies through college by reading and doing practice problems online. (and I’m an engineer) I would have saved a boatload of money.

    1. I got my engineering education designing and building a racecar every year. My biggest complaint about college was how rigid the structure was.

  12. Real textbook writers will happily write textbooks for free anyway. They don’t care about money. Besides, textbook writers have always made their real money off T-shirts and live shows.

    1. And what of the carriage drivers and whip manufacturers?

  13. For those college students out there who like physical books but don’t like high prices, look into international editions.

    I wanted to learn C# and I do best in a classroom setting, so I looked for a C# textbook. I found one for a junior college. It was a 100 or 200 level class (I forget which) and it cost $150.

    I then looked for an international edition and got exact same book, delivered 5 days after purchase, from England for $67.

    For all those students downloading their books for free, good for you!

    Screw those textbook publishers and their gouging ways.

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