Money to Blow . . . on Coursepacks?

When I was an investment banking analyst, the expectation was that I blew my discretionary income on nightlife. As a student, the expectation is that I am cheap.  Still, even students can have indulgences.  Mine are overpriced lattes and of course, new textbooks.

Whatever may be said about the monotony of reading thousands of pages of court cases that is law school, one benefit of spending hundreds of dollars on casebooks every semester is that it is less psychologically unsettling than spending hundreds on coursepacks as I did in undergrad.  Coursepacks (in undergraduate business school anyway) comprised business articles from sources such as the Wall Street Journal, some academic papers, and Harvard Business School (HBS) case studies.  Spending anywhere from $100 to $200 on these materials per course seemed silly—partly because so many of those articles could be found for free online and partly because of the flimsiness of their binding and presentation relative to real textbooks.  (After all, Jay Gatsby didn’t stock his library with shoddily binded computer paper.)

Honestly, I can’t complain about having to pay for the HBS case studies because a decent amount of sweat goes into collecting the real-world data and organizing it for a small audience.  The limited distribution of the cases relative to a Dan Brown novel forces a price markup with which I can live.  However, the fact remains that you are also paying for many free, publicly available materials.  The other problem is a more general one with education:  in most courses, you only ever reference a couple of the HBS cases but still pay for the other five.

Some renegade professors surreptitiously post supplemental articles on course management websites such as Blackboard.  The more circumspect ones post links to those articles.  But these are rare cases because professors generally have nothing to lose in selecting material and forcing students to buy expensive coursepacks (except a few negative course evaluations); whereas, if they distribute copyrighted material, they risk violating school policies and the law.

While copyright law, through fair use and exceptions for educational uses, gives some room for copying, courts have likely made the practice of circumventing coursepacks by professors an even greater rarity.[1]

There is much talk about education in the United States needing serious repair:

–          In light of the financial crisis of 2008, there has been commentary on the ‘Wall Street brain drain’—the trend of excessive numbers of young and bright Americans heading to work in finance.

–          In response, initiatives in support of science, technology, engineering, and math education (STEM) have been announced.

–          Occupy Wall Street has reinvigorated an argument that has never really gone away, which is that student loans, and implicitly college expenses, are just too high.

I think it is undeniable that education needs reform.  Although the bullet points above are mostly relevant to higher education, maladies infect the entire system.

The last bullet resonates with me most.  The first two issues would directly benefit from the lowering of higher education costs.  Greater financial flexibility means greater flexibility in contemplating different careers and taking courses in subjects of interest.  I think it’s safe to say that a vast majority of folks headed to finance go there for money and opportunity rather than enthusiasm for the vocation.  Allowing people to educate themselves in things that they find exciting is more likely to lead to innovation, opportunity, and an economy that is not dominated by the financial sector.

Our liberal arts education system is predicated upon this diversity of interests.  I will be the first to admit that sometimes too much curricular flexibility causes a neglect of the less ‘sexy’ subjects, such as STEM.  However, I posit that if quality education were cheaper even STEM would benefit from a boost in popularity.

Peter Thiel, former Pay-Pal co-founder, has commented that education is in a cost bubble.  I don’t doubt him.  Paying $200 for 200 pages of paper, of which only 20 pages ever benefited my mind, is appalling.  Perhaps, inflated coursepack pricing isn’t the fault of educators as much as it is the cost of copyright law.  However, it is just another symptom of a bloated and inefficient educational system. (Another example is schools paying premium salaries to professors for their research rather than teaching ability.  Schools again may be the victims rather than the culprits because they are merely trying to improve their reputations, which though superficial, may be just as important as quality education.)

I am not advocating skipping college. (As a grad student, I would be a hypocrite if I did).  Although not attending college may make sense for an elite few, I do think the vast majority of Americans could benefit from the networks and job opportunities colleges and some types of vocational training can create.  I advocate instead for a massive retrenchment.

How?

I have no clue.  Maybe that’s my cue to go occupy Wall Street.


[1] See, e.g., Princeton University Press v. Michigan Document Services 99 F.3d 1381 (6th Cir. 1996)

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