Why Am I Spending Three Hundred Dollars on a Textbook?

Pomona College’s endowment is two billion dollars. You did not misread that. Two. Billion.

Or, to put it another way, Pomona College has the fifth largest endowment-to-student ratio of any college or university in the United States.

Pomona finds many ways to spend its unfathomably large treasure trove, from throwing elaborate inaugurations, to uprooting entire buildings and placing them across the street.

On top of its endowment, Pomona has one of the most expensive tuitions of any college in the nation: nearly $65,000 per student annually and rising.

Some of Pomona’s splurges make sense. Subscriptions to newspapers keep the student body informed; free wifi enables students to browse the internet and submit assignments; on-campus concerts and parties boost morale and entice new students.

Yet, despite all of Pomona’s extravagances, one actual necessity is not covered by tuition, endowment, or the like: our textbooks.

Textbooks can cost an ungodly amount of money. I’ve had to purchase textbooks for anywhere from $20 (a paperback novel) to $300 (they’ll throw in a CD for an extra $100!).

Why are these educational essentials not provided by the college? Why must students, on top of the tens of thousands of dollars we already pay to attend the institution, cough up another $500, $600, or $700 a school year to purchase reading materials that are used for four months and never touched again?

For many students, it is a struggle to acquire the funds necessary to purchase their required textbooks. Yazmin Maza PO ‘20, the co-president of the Questbridge program for low-income and first generation students, worries that a student’s inability to purchase a required textbook could be detrimental to their education.

Even if low-income students work multiple jobs to ease the financial burden, by the time they purchase textbooks, they have already fallen behind, Maza said — mainly due to the significant time gap between the start of the semester, the beginning of the hiring process for on-campus jobs, and the processing of a first paycheck.

Johny Ek PO ‘19, co-president of Questbridge, wrote in an email to TSL that "if Pomona wants to level the playing field, then it should provide students with all the tools they need to succeed, which includes textbooks."

While some students can afford a textbook’s newest edition, others rely on second-hand or library copies. According to Jovani Azpeitia PO ‘19, the Questbridge Academic and Professional Events committee leader, this disparity compels him to feel “more conscious of [his] socio-economic status,” for, “every time ... [he has] to go to the library to read [the textbook], [he’s] reminded that [he] can’t afford [it].”

Students can apply for limited emergency funds to purchase textbooks, but at its current maximum of $350, the fund would hardly cover the cost of an entire semester’s worth of required reading materials, let alone the additional costs of school supplies, laundry expenses, and other living expenses.

In some cases, Azpeitia says that “professors are understanding” of one’s inability to spare hundreds of dollars on any given textbook.

Juan Jaramillo PO '18, a co-head of the Questbridge mentorship program, says that professors also put books out on loan at libraries or specific department lounges. Yet due to limited library hours, time constraints on book loans, and high student demand, the availability of loaned textbooks is scarce at best.

In my high school, and in many others across the United States, textbooks were loaned to students for the semester and then returned at its end. If one were lost or damaged, students were responsible for reimbursing the cost for the book. Otherwise, no student was forced to pay hundreds of dollars to use a biology textbook that could just have easily been passed down from the previous class.

This system ensured that household income had no relevance in the classroom. Starting with our reading materials, all students were given an equal opportunity to succeed in class.

An entire industry thrives off the convoluted college textbook market: the firsthand seller, the used seller, the sites to track down the best deals, and our very own Huntley Bookstore.

The textbook industry is designed to make money off the backs of students trying to succeed. Need the newest addition of a textbook? Be prepared to spend hundreds of dollars to get it. Required to purchase a book with an online database? It will cost extra and expire after four months.

Pomona must put an end to this system of exploitation. Ultimately, we must ask ourselves 'what is the purpose of spending a two billion endowment on social events, elaborate renovations, and other extravagances if students can’t even afford the textbooks required for class?'

First and foremost, Pomona is an academic institution. As such, prioritizing the needs of the classroom should come first. It is crucial that Pomona actualize its commitment to accessible education for students of all socioeconomic backgrounds by reallocating a portion of its vast endowment to alleviate the burden of textbook purchase. 

Zachary Freiman PO '20 is a prospective Music and Public Policy Analysis double major from Sleepy Hollow, NY. He dreams of one day meeting Oprah Winfrey.