Textbook Economics

Today is the final deadline for textbook refunds at the Coop, which should be of high concern to students regardless of whether they have dropped—or plan to drop—a fall term class. In fact, I encourage all students at Harvard to return their textbooks to the Coop immediately.

As a first-year, I had been warned to expect high textbook prices. But when my chemistry textbook cost me more than a summer’s worth of gasoline, I knew I had to look elsewhere for a better deal.

Someone out there had to be selling the same edition for a lower price—that’s the way a capitalist economy is supposed to work. Competition should drive prices down.

Sure enough, on my way into the first meeting of Introduction to Principles of Chemistry, I was handed an advertisement for that quoted a price $48 less than the Coop. I resolved to buy both my science textbooks from, and return my overpriced copies to the Coop. In total, I saved $98 on the two.

As the only store in the square that sells textbooks for all Harvard College classes, the Coop can act as a monopoly and has the power to charge more than the fair price for the books.


The Coop’s official mission statement, as posted on its website, reads: “The Coop’s Mission is to serve the Harvard and MIT communities as a cooperative by providing quality products and services. Our operations should be profitable, enabling us to share a portion of those profits with our members in the form of a rebate, and to support a capital budget which will insure our viability.”

That the Coop’s operations are profitable is quite plain, and the store is clearly viable.

However, the Coop should not need to charge almost twice as much on some books than certain online retailers to achieve these goals. Students should strongly consider looking elsewhere to make their purchases.

Granted, the Coop has some advantages for students. The Coop is open for over 12 hours a day—convenient for last minute grab on your way to class. And the Coop assists students by organizing its wares according to the Harvard course numbering system—allowing students to peruse the shelves, judge classes and examine the content of the books. For these services, the Coop should be expected to charge more than an online retailer, who have lower operating costs—they need only a warehouse and a smaller staff.

But the issue here is a matter of degree. It seems as though the difference in prices is too large, even considering these additional services. While the number of online retailers selling textbooks insures that their prices will be competitive, the Coop does not face this pressure. They will only be forced to lower their prices if we students turn to the online market.

It is well known that Harvard students spend a great deal of money on learning—sometimes more than we can afford. But that doesn’t mean that there is no limit on what we are willing to sacrifice, nor does it mean that booksellers should make a point of taking advantage of our commitment to academics.

If the Coop is genuinely dedicated to serving the communities of Harvard and MIT, and if enough students turn to online retailers this fall, then by the start of the spring term the Coop will have to arrive at a more reasonable definition of viability. Otherwise, when the nippy February weather comes around, I might just have to stay in and order from a website.