Bookstore Blues


The college bookstore is an inevitable, unfortunate part of the Middlebury experience, contributing significantly to our school’s textbook problem. Middlebury does little to address the substantial burden of excessive textbook costs on students. Faculty can assemble booklists without regard for the price of a work and its value to their class. But instead of providing an affordable, convenient vendor to mitigate excessive expenses, the campus store is a price-gouging local monopoly.

The ludicrous cost of textbooks is not unique to Middlebury. Throughout the country students begin their semesters with jaw-dropping bills at their school stores. Students have admitted to spending over $300 for one book, an absurd pricetag even for those who can afford it, and these texts frequently offer little advantage over cheaper options or previous editions.

But Middlebury’s bookstore does a remarkably poor job of making affordable textbooks accessible. Though the bookstore sells new books at cost, they sell used textbooks at extreme markups, buying them for only 5 to 10 percent of face value and selling them for nearly the cost of a new text.

The store’s website claims that profits “offset the cost of what the college pays for education.” This statement is obscene and offensive to the students and families who pay tens of thousands of dollars each semester in tuition.

The lack of accessibility to textbooks for students on financial aid is a serious shortcoming of the college. At Middlebury, students on financial aid receive limited help in purchasing their textbooks. Some receive a loan to cover book costs but have to pay back the cost in full within a month or two. Some schools, like Williams, offer all students receiving assistance free textbooks. A scheme like this prioritizes learning by subsidizing the means of education. It is a matter of conscious allocation of capital.

While Williams does enjoy an endowment over twice as large as Middlebury’s, our college can still do better to prioritize subsidies for textbooks — a core mechanism of education — and ensure that students on financial aid do not face academic disadvantages.

In the meantime, students with financial need can reach out to professors requesting that copies of books needed for class be placed on reserve in the library. Bookstores in town can be a great resource too. We also recommend selling books on the Free & For Sale page or working with the library to keep costs low.

Options for improvement abound. The bookstore could work with professors to help them find high quality, affordable books. The store could also seek to ensure the same book is used each year, so students can be assured that the store will purchase their books at the end of the semester. It could even build a set of books available each semester to students in a particular course. Middlebury deserves a bookstore that benefits rather than exploits the student body.

The bookstore’s return policy preys on students, especially those in compromising financial situations. According to the policy on the bookstore website, students are only able to return a book for any reason up until the first Friday of classes for store credit. After this deadline, they must prove that they dropped the class for which they purchased the book, and may still receive only a partial refund in store credit. Additionally, CDs and shrink-wrapped books cannot be returned once opened, deterring students from exploring new classes during the add–drop period, one of the college’s greatest assets.

This return policy needs revision. It should not interfere with Middlebury’s generous period for course exploration, which encourages risk-taking and the pursuit of new interests in accordance with the liberal arts philosophy. In short, financial ability has no place in academic choice.

The college seeks profit in many ways beyond the tuition bill. Many seniors graduate with hundreds of dollars in Papercut balances and bookstore gift cards. But textbooks are fundamental to the learning experience.

As a college whose primary purpose is education, this school should make a conscious decision to make textbooks affordable. It must say no to profit margins, to capitalism in education, when knowledge itself becomes a commodity.

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