This September, the NY Times ran a front page article in their Sunday paper on college student loan defaults and the organizations that attempt to collect on defaulted loans. Look, if you take out a loan, my expectation is that it gets paid back. But what to do in the case of exigent circumstances? (And what exactly qualifies as exigent--that's a whole other blog post.) My focal point today--how hard is it becoming to watch students fall deeper under water?
The bookstore services landscape for educational institutions, both public and private, has been radically transformed in the past five years. More and more operations have been outsourced or restructured to resemble businesses in the private sector while bookstore operations at the majority of colleges and universities still operate under a model from a time that has come and gone.
An article on the cover of Thursday’s Wall Street Journal headlined with: College Debt Hits Well-Off. I had to think about it for a moment, mostly because I expected to see something more like “college debt hits record highs.” But it means what it says—college debt is now impacting the upper-middle class financially more than before.
The article focuses on families making between approximately $95,000 and $205,000 in annual income. This population experienced an increase in student loan debt from 2007 to 2010. The data came from the College Board while the analysis was provided by WSJ using data from the Federal Reserve Survey of Consumer Finance.
Matt Greenfield posted a blog entry yesterday on the Huff Post on whether it’s appropriate to continue using the word “textbook,” now that the digital transition is upon us.
It’s interesting that the word in English is the only one (that I’m aware of, at least) that doesn’t designate the book specifically as an educational object. In French, for example, “textbook” would be translated as “manuel scolaire,” scholarly manual; in German, it’s “Lehrbuch,” teaching/instruction book (the Spanish “libro de texto” is likely a neologism derived from the contemporary English word). Perhaps the origin of the word “text” stems from the use of primary source materials (that makes sense to me) but the openness of the word may actually be helpful as we make the digital transition. Precisely because it has an etymological relation to weaving, blending together, it could be flexible enough for repurposing (as it has done so already in the digital realm, as, for example, “hypertext.”) There’s also a minimalist and direct sense of the word “text”: It’s clean and dry and unencumbered. And regardless of the many ways in which the digital transition will play out, and despite the use of video, audio, 3D simulations, and other “learning objects,” who would deny that “text,” as the written word, is still the foundation of learning and will continue to be? “Visual learning” can be a great complement that helps reinforce concepts but there’s no substitute for grasping them at a textual level.
The federal antitrust lawsuit initiated late last month against Apple and major publishers is indeed the boon to Amazon that most view it as. As a book publishing analyst put it in a NY Times article on the story, “Amazon must be unbelievably happy…Had they been puppeteering this whole play, it could not have worked out better for them.” He and others from the publishing industry see this, however, as not just a boost for Amazon but a development that portends darker days for publishers and ultimately for the reading public: “Publishers and booksellers argue that any victory for consumers will be short-lived, and that the ultimate effect of the antitrust suit will be to exchange a perceived monopoly for a real one. Amazon, already the dominant force in the industry, will hold all the cards.”
Such a suggestion, I think, is misplaced because it underestimates the depth of the changes now afoot in the publishing industry. Lower eBook prices may be one effect of Amazon’s successful drive to dominate the market for eReader devices, but the company’s comprehensive distribution platform (which includes the capacity to create and manage content) helps to raise the very question of what it means to be a publisher. “Content is king” is the cliché so often used by owners of content, and new media businesses have turned that on its head. Distribution, the “platform,” now takes priority—for a sufficiently developed and mature one will attract the highest quality content available. We’re already at the point where authors, collaborators, editors—people who create content generally—no longer require the independent services of a publisher to achieve their goals. These needs—editing, distribution, marketing—can now be handled by the distribution companies themselves, as Amazon has already demonstrated with the launch of CreateSpace and its related Kindle Publishing arm. And as supportive as Apple has been of traditional publishers, it also now operates its own self-publishing unit, ibooks Author, designed especially with the educational textbook market in mind. Publishers and their analysts may one day look at this period, in which they’re worried about pricing controls within the context of traditional publisher and bookseller relations, as the last of their halcyon days.
The move to digital does not necessarily lower the cost of textbooks. That much has been clear in these early days of the transition. Commercial textbook publishers offer their PDF “eTextbook” versions typically at about fifty percent of the cost of the new physical book. But once the astute student considers that these digital versions usually expire—vanish—after 180 days, and once she considers that the physical copy is often available for purchase or rent through online third parties at or below the digital price, then the appeal often wanes.
Caroline Vanderlip, in her article published yesterday in Inside Higher Ed, makes this point too and believes that there’s another, better way forward. She calls it the “disaggregation model,” and it’s worth considering.