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A Question of Marginal Utility

Donating royalties from Ec10 textbook sales fails to address the core issue at hand: prohibitively high textbook prices

By The Crimson Editorial Board

After facing criticism for charging students exorbitant textbook fees, Professor N. Gregory Mankiw, who teaches the most enrolled course at the College, Economics 10, announced that he would donate all royalties from his course materials to charity. While we support his decision to donate some of the profits from his popular textbook, this approach also seems to ignore the crux of student complaints about the notoriously high cost of enrolling in Ec10.

Unlike most Harvard courses, which allow students to purchase textbooks secondhand and thus reduce the costs associated with a given class, Ec10 requires all students to buy new books—priced at $131 each—in order to receive an access code to its online software, MindTap. As we have opined in the past, this requirement can put Ec10 out of reach for students.

The promise of Harvard College, and the liberal arts education it provides, is that students should have the ability to pursue any academic interest and enroll in any course. High textbook prices prevent students from having that academic freedom, placing those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a disadvantage. This is compounded by the fact that both Social Studies and Economics, two popular concentrations, require Ec10. Ironically, the price of the course materials place students under financial strain in order to learn basic economics.

Mankiw’s decision to donate the royalties from his textbook sales thus sidesteps the root cause of student complaints. The issue is not that Mankiw collects royalties from a textbook he wrote. The issue is that his course prohibits students from buying that book secondhand. The solution to this issue is exceptionally simple, and Mankiw’s continued reluctance to address it, and decision to instead donate his royalties, is a serious flaw in one of Harvard’s largest and most prominent courses.

Ec10 could remove MindTap—the problem set software—from its course requirements, thus enabling students to buy their books secondhand. MindTap had numerous glitches and errors last year, and it is hard to justify the cost of what is essentially a glorified multiple-choice quiz. Alternatively, or additionally, as Mankiw seems willing to give up his royalties from textbook sales, he could subsidize his textbook cost for students, opening the doors of Ec10 to those who might otherwise choose cheaper courses and fields of study.

This is a question of, as Ec10 would phrase it, marginal utility. Mankiw has done well enough for himself from his teaching and textbook sales that donating some of the proceeds is small burden to him. For students, who often struggle to afford basic learning materials, the marginal utility of saving $131 is much higher. We urge the Ec10 staff to make an effort to lower their costs—indeed remembering the very lessons taught in their course.

As we revisit the ongoing issue of Ec10 textbook prices, we are reminded of our appreciation for professors that make their classes financially accessible. Many Harvard course heads provide scans of texts or offer low-cost options, and we urge Mankiw to follow their example.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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