Textbook merger could create more problems than just higher prices


Ever since Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education – two of the largest textbook publishers in the U.S. – announced plans to merge next year, fears have arisen that lack of competition in America’s textbook industry will lead to higher textbook prices for students.

Indeed, Cengage and McGraw-Hill currently control about 24% and 21% of the textbook market, respectively, while Pearson – the other giant in America’s textbook industry – controls about 40%. If the merger goes through, that means just two companies would control over 80% of U.S. textbook sales, placing control over future price hikes in even fewer hands.

This is particularly troublesome when you consider the fact that since 2000, textbook prices have already risen 146% – far above the rate of inflation.

As a scholar who studies how students read and learn using print versus digital texts, I see other potential issues with the proposed textbook company merger that could harm students in more ways than just forcing them to pay more for their course readings.

Lessening of choices

The first issue concerns choice – both for students and faculty.

Thanks to the growth of e-books and online courses, traditional print books are already being increasingly replaced by digital materials.

Consequently, as publishers move to phase out print, students aren’t just getting their course materials from the college bookstore. For instance, several of the largest publishers, including Cengage and McGraw-Hill, have created an “inclusive access” model. In this model, students are charged a course fee by the college or university they attend, and their school then pays the publisher in return for digital materials.

In 2017, Cengage created Cengage Unlimited, offering students digital access to any of its books for less than US$200 a year. While on the one hand this might seem like a convenience, it basically locks faculty into books published only by Cengage – which precludes faculty selecting other books.

An even more dramatic change is the new “digital first” policy that Pearson announced in July. Under this digital first policy, Pearson will largely focus on creating and updating digital materials going forward. Consequently, there will be fewer new editions of print textbooks, and when they do appear, their prices will be relatively high.

With digital, students don’t actually buy books but license them, meaning they never own them, just as you don’t own any digital software. That means students can’t shop for a lower-priced copy of a digital book, and they can’t sell the digital book at the end of the semester.

Understandably, publishers dislike the used book market, since they profit only from first sale of new books.

If the merger goes through, selling back used textbooks will be less common – and to the detriment of student choice. With print, if students purchase a textbook, they may choose to sell it when the course ends. They also might buy a used copy initially, saving them money. These options disappear in a digital environment.

Impact on learning

But there is a second critical issue with shifting from print to digital. And that is whether students learn better using print or digital textbooks.

In two international studies of university students – including one I conducted and another led by Diane Mizrachi – students overwhelmingly said they learn better with print. My colleagues and I got the same response for a study we did with middle and high school students in Norway. In all three studies, students complained they become distracted when reading digitally.

An analysis of several studies on the topic concluded that overall, students performed better in answering questions about a reading passage if they read it in print, not digitally. However, these findings sometimes depend on the kind of questions asked or the amount of time students spend doing the reading.

Researchers Patricia Alexander and Lauren Singer Trakhman have shown that students do equally well with print and digital when questions ask about the main idea in a passage. However, if students are asked for more detailed key points, students do better in print. Ironically, if you ask those same students about the medium on which they think they had higher scores, they say digital – even though the opposite is true.

Time also matters. For instance, researchers in Israel found that if people get a set amount of time to read, they score comparably in print and digital. However, if students can choose how much time to take, they tend to read faster and do worse on the comprehension exam.

What can be done

There might be little that can be done about the continuing shift from print to digital in the textbook industry. But students can be encouraged to study more strategically in a digital environment. Some ideas include employing traditional reading strategies such as identifying keywords, summarizing and note-taking. Researchers are also experimenting with having students do exercises to encourage making inferences about the text, rather than reading only for surface information.

As the educational reading landscape becomes overwhelmingly digital, I believe it will become more important to find proven strategies to help students become more aware of the best ways to read and study online – especially as regular printed textbooks gradually begin to disappear.

Author Bio: Naomi S. Baron is a Professor of Linguistics Emerita at American University