A simple question: why are language textbooks so expensive?

Yigit Kahyaoglu, Contributing Writer

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On the bi-annual trip to the Highlander, rarely is a Mac student not terrified by the textbook prices. It is simply a fact that you pay a lot of money in the beginning of every semester; only the financially-savvy few manage to avoid the monstrous costs. This is true for all colleges, majors and students. Some departments, however, have it worse than others.

The intro courses in Spanish, French and Portuguese all had textbooks that cost over $200. The textbooks themselves aren’t too expensive, and whenever they are, they are easy to find second-hand. What makes the prices go up to atrocious levels are the online access codes: a code that allows you to use the online portal of the book. These portals often include an e-book,  interactive versions of the activities in the books and, in some cases, additional exercises.

These online platforms have some obvious benefits. Professors can assign homework online, and, for the most part, they don’t even have to grade the homework themselves. It’s also  relatively practical to have the textbook online as opposed to a physical copy, although these portals usually don’t have a smooth user experience anyway. At their best, they are painfully slow with some occasional crashes.

Despite their supposed benefits, purchasing access to these portals creates an enormous financial burden. Generally, the access codes cost around as much as the book, doubling the total price to between $200-300. Language textbooks are already expensive as they are, and this additional cost makes language classes financially challenging to a lot of students. It gets even worse, as the college has a four-semester language requirement for all students. There is no escape from the financial burden of a language class, except for those who already speak another language.

The language requirement itself is not a problem. It is, in fact, a necessity for an institution that strives to transform students into global citizens. Internationalism is not viable without multilingualism; those who want to understand others ought to learn their languages. The problem is that the cost of the textbooks makes the classes inaccessible to a lot of students; yet the requirement forces students to purchase these books. Students who do not have the financial resources to afford the books are put in a challenging situation that they have to deal with with very limited assistance.

The underlying assumption here is that those who can afford going to a private liberal arts college can afford expensive textbooks. Higher education, in the end, is designed for the upper and middle classes. Unaffordable textbooks are only a small way in which this power dynamic reproduces itself by excluding lower-income students. Macalester, on the whole, is doing a lot of things right in challenging this power structure. Textbook affordability is where we are currently lacking. Working towards eliminating overpriced textbooks would prove Macalester’s commitment to socio-economic inclusivity.

This is obviously not an easy task to undertake. It feels impossible to even imagine a stress-free trip to the Highlander. It’s not impossible, though. There are a plethora of open educational resources for language teaching. It would require restructuring syllabi entirely, sure, but it is not impossible by any means. Alternatively, departmental financial aid for textbooks would make a difference for those who struggle with the costs.

There is no shortage of ways in which we can establish textbook affordability. It just requires our determination and dedication to create more accessible language classes for all.