The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) has submitted a detailed filing to the U.S. Department of Justice urging federal antitrust enforcers to block the proposed merger between college textbook publishing giants Cengage and McGraw-Hill Education. The merger would create the largest publisher of college course materials in the United States and the world’s second largest education publisher overall.
SPARC’s filing lays out how the merger would violate the Clayton Antitrust Act, creating a combined company that would control 45% of the college textbook market. Along with Pearson, which currently holds approximately 40%, this merger would consolidate the textbook market in the hands of only two players—remaking the market as a duopoly.
The merger has raised alarm bells across the education sector, with opposition also being voiced by student governments and consumer organizations.
The college textbook market is a classic example of a ‘captive market’ where students are required to buy whatever book they have been assigned no matter the cost. In the last two decades, the cost of textbooks has far outpaced inflation, home prices, medical care, and wages. According to the Consumer Price Index, consumer prices for college textbooks have increased 184% since 1998, three times the rate of inflation. More than two-thirds of college campuses consider textbook affordability a major concern.
As textbooks and other course materials transition to digital, the amount of data publishers can collect about the students who use them will grow exponentially—often without students even knowing it. This data can be fed into algorithms that can classify a student’s learning style, assess whether they grasp core concepts, decide whether a student qualifies for extra help, or identify if a student is at risk of dropping out. While some of these uses might be helpful to students, the same data can also be used in negative ways—from mischaracterizing an individual’s abilities to violating privacy rights. Monopolistic activities are a problem when it comes to personal data just as much as traditional markets.
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