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Monday, February 17, 2014

Law Schools Competing on Course Material Prices

Christine Hurt's post about the sales model of legal scholarship included a new approach for providing students with course materials:

The direct-to-student model for casebooks.  I've been thinking about this since I discovered how much a new edition of the Torts book I use cost (gasp).  So, currently, I can use my work time to write a casebook that is then sold to law students, including mine, who pay $200/ea, and I get $20/ea.  For doing my job.  (I know, others deviate from this model, including paying their own students back their royalties .)  But why not just self-publish?  I spend my summer coming up with my own materials (as many do for their own courses anyway) and make them free for my students online?  All the cases are available on the internet, and so are all the statutes/Restatement sections/etc.  The only thing missing is the commentary and the questions (which I usually skip).  This could save students $1000/semester.  I'm teaching a course for the first time this semester, BA II, and I put together my own materials -- cases, law review articles, public disclosure documents.  It takes a lot of time, but it's not crazy.  What about first-time professors?  Well, I would be happy to share my materials.  In fact, all the Torts professors here could combine forces.  Just a thought.

I have written (here and here!) about moving to an open-source model for casebooks.  But it hasn't happened yet.  I think there are pretty clear reasons why: (1) casebooks provide value to professors by organizing and synthesizing complex material, and (2) professors and law schools do not have to pay the costs of those materials directly or personally.  

Ian Ayers, in the op-ed cited by Christine, argued that schools should have a "textbook maintenance organization" that provides students with books as part of tuition.  So I was thinking about revisiting this idea now, and adding a twist:  schools could compete against each other on course material prices.  Here's what one enterprising law school could do:

  • Instead of having students buy their own books, have students pay the school a yearly "course materials fee," and then the school would provide them with all the books or other materials assigned for their courses.
  • The school would then buy books for its students (and, in theory, negotiate a cheaper bulk rate) or pay its professors to produce their own materials for their classes.

This system would incentivize not only cheaper casebook prices, but it would also incentivize the production of course materials more specifically tailored to that set of students.  So schools with a local employment base could, for example, teach the criminal law of that particular state using state-oriented materials.  I think (almost) everyone wins here:

  • Students would pay less overall, as the school would have an incentive to keeps its fee lower given the salience and openness of the fee.  And they also might get course materials more directly targeted to their educational needs.
  • Schools would get the money for course materials directly and then either pay the publishers lower prices (by negotiating) or pay their own profs to produce teaching materials.
  • Profs who produce their own materials locally could get some compensation for the value they add.
  • And even though it might not be "good" for them, it would incentivize casebook publishers to add more value for what they are selling, so profs continue to use them.  (Ayres argues that publishers would sell more books, which is possible but seems unlikely to me.)  Plus, the school would not cover supplemental materials and/or study aids, so publishers would still be able to get full value there.

Ayres argues for textbook maintenance organizations as an efficient and fair reform.  But couldn't it also be grounds for competition?  Schools would have to make clear that they were working hard to save their students money overall, rather than just hitting them with another fee.  So one school could advertise: "Students at most schools can pay over $2000 in course materials per year.  At X School of Law, we'll cover all your course materials for only $500."

The response to educational market change seems to be slow and sticky.  But given the ever-increasing cost of casebooks, paired with the new incentives for schools to compete on price, some schools might find some success here if they are willing to be first-movers.

BTW: if you need more evidence about the crazy inflation of casebook prices, check out this line from Ayres's 2005 op-ed: "We're used to paying $25 for a hardcover novel, but my casebook on contracts now sells to students for $103 . . . ."  The 2014 price is here.

Posted by Matt Bodie on February 17, 2014 at 11:24 AM in Books, Life of Law Schools, Teaching Law | Permalink


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I could not see this working at my school.

1) The old lazy faculty like the current model, it doesn't require them to do very much. You're now asking them to do something, and that something is something different. That doesn't make sense.

2) The young aggressive faculty like the current model, it doesn't require them to do very much. You're now asking them to take time away from law review articles, the only thing they get rewarded for doing. That doesn't make sense.

3) The students complain about costs, but they're not going to choose my law school over a competing school merely because the books are cheaper. Their price sensitivity is wildly oversold. We've tried dozens of different cost cutting measures that make a difference of a few thousand dollars, yet they only understand scholarship money. For example, our cross-town rival is $4500 per year more than us, similarly ranked, but when a student gets a $10,000 scholarship from them, they want us to match (forcing us to explain how the cross-town rival is really only giving them $5500 b/c they cost more). They don't get it, and I don't get why they don't get it.

Posted by: anonskeptic | Feb 19, 2014 2:25:01 PM

I have undertaken a similar cost savings strategy in my Mergers and Acquisitions class which I teach as an adjunct. I assign a reasonably priced (~$40) book (Prof. Bainbridge's Mergers and Acquisitions concepts and insights series) and prepared my own cases and statutes to supplement it. I embarked on this path after reading all of the available text books and finding them all less than ideal for the purposes of my class. The materials (the cases and statutes were all obtained from the original sources as to not offend Westlaw or Lexis copyrights) are posted on the law school's blackboard website. I excerpt them myself to shorten the reading and I even OCR them so they are searchable. Some students print them out, but most read them on their laptops. The $150 each the students save may not be much in the context of a law school education, but it is what I can do and I believe it is appreciated. The upside for me is that I can select the cases which are most relevant rather than be stuck with another educator's choice of materials. I hope to someday include my own commentary and background in addition to the materials, but Prof. Bainbridge's book does an admirable job of summarizing the key issues and to undertake that amount of work as an adjunct would be a challenge with my day job obligations.

Posted by: Prof. Brown | Feb 18, 2014 11:08:08 PM

A free online casebook system is being piloted at Harvard

Two of my classes have used it already.

It can be a little annoying to navigate, but the price can't be beat.

Posted by: Student | Feb 18, 2014 7:06:19 PM

Not to throw too much cold water on a good idea, but schools with fewer than 400 or so in each class will not be able to negotiate a substantially better deal with the oligopolistic textbook distributors to reduce their own costs. Instead, they'll be restricted to selling the books to students "at cost"... and, for academic and textbooks, the long discount is only 20% off list price, not the typical 45% for trade books at the local trade bookstore. That is, on a $100 book, the vendor (bookstore, school, etc.) pays the publisher $55 if it's a trade book... but $80 if it's a textbook. Just because.

None of this is to say that this is a bad idea; it's just to say that the achievable savings (to students and to schools) just from banding together and buying in bulk aren't as big as they might seem.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Feb 18, 2014 11:35:09 AM

I believe this is the story that David is referring to:


Posted by: Matt Bodie | Feb 18, 2014 10:07:42 AM

I was going to write that there's no way this would work for the "great" casebooks, such as Hart & Wechsler, when it occurred to me that it did work for one--Hart & Sacks.

Posted by: David | Feb 18, 2014 10:01:03 AM

I meant to add that I'm obviously not the first person to consider/try this; for example Derek Tokaz suggests it in his comment here: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2013/07/ten-no-make-that-nineteen-tips-for-new-law-professors.html

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Feb 18, 2014 2:00:00 AM

Thanks for the interesting post, Matt. Here's one other thought, more along the lines of Andy's individual-course money-saving model versus the big picture institutional reforms you are describing:

In my Conlaw II class, on a few occasions I've just given the students case citations and let them obtain the cases however they like. Some of them printed everything from Westlaw or Lexis and put it in a binder. Others did everything electronically (using either their laptops or else iPads and apps like GoodReader), which saves even the cost of printing.

For really long cases I sometimes provided some pinciting, but mostly I used it as an opportunity for the students to practice reading (and, as appropriate, skimming) cases the way they will in practice. It's an opportunity for some skills training. How do you read and annotate a 200 page case in a such a way that you can talk fluently about it to your supervisor? What's the best way for students to organize their materials? I think the answers vary among students, which is why it's useful to practice. When I brought in guest speakers I had them talk both about the substantive course material and about their own approach to familiarizing themselves with a new body of doctrine.

I don't think this approach would work for every class, but both times the feedback was really positive from the students.

As Matt probably knows but other might not, Robin Effron did a good series on posts on teaching open-source civil procedure. I think many of her suggestions would also reduce course material costs: http://prawfsblawg.blogs.com/prawfsblawg/2013/08/teaching-open-source-civ-pro-part-ii-the-materials-im-using.html

Posted by: Nancy Leong | Feb 18, 2014 1:58:46 AM

Could not agree more ... and CALI is ready and willing to pay law faculty to write course materials that we will distribute under a Creative Commons license forever more. We are already a consortium of 200+ law schools and we're about 'computers' and 'legal instruction', so it's a perfect fit.

The pay is all up-front - no royalty structure, but I believe it is more than most faculty see for total royalties from traditional publishers.

We accept proposals every two months. Learn more http://elangdell.cali.org/content/write-elangdell-casebook-or-chapter

John Mayer
Executive Director
[email protected]

Posted by: John Mayer | Feb 18, 2014 1:06:16 AM

There's an easy solution to the obscene prices of text books – just use a prior edition of the book. For my tax classes, my students generally pay $1 - $10 for a book, rather than $180-$200. This saves gigantic sums of money. For a 100 person class, they pay a total of $100-$1,000, rather than $18,000-$20,000 .

Most casebooks don’t change very much, and even if a new case comes out or a statute is enacted, we should all be experts in the subject matters we teach, such that it’s easy to point out to students when a case or statute in the old book has been overridden. And in any event, I have a hard time believing that any subject changes so much that a 3 year old casebook becomes unfit for use. I feel confident saying that tax law is the most dynamic area of the law, and I do just fine with using previous editions.

I can imagine a few circumstances where one should assign a new book -- when a great book is in its first edition, when the market for the prior edition is very thin, or maybe when you are teaching something totally unfamiliar. But generally we should assign books that cost $5 rather than $200.

Nonetheless, my pleading to save our students hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars this way is usually met with resistance. Perhaps professors would adopt the prior editions if they were each given a cut of the amounts that each student saved (just kidding).

I of course understand that the market for law books would change if everyone started using old editions, but at this point, so few people do it that using an old edition reflects low-hanging fruit for any professor concerned with the increasing debt loads of his or her students.

(Tried posting this once; hopefully it comes through this time.)

Posted by: andy | Feb 17, 2014 5:51:21 PM

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