It's that time of year again when universities around the nation resume their noble mission, which is to field good football and basketball teams, educate students and sell a lot of really expensive textbooks.

Not necessarily in that order.

Have you visited a college bookstore recently? Old saying: "The road to knowledge begins with the turn of the page." New saying: "It begins with a credit card."

At a local university bookstore (just pick one, it doesn't matter), the "Introduction to Teaching" textbook sells for $100 — about the same as the monthly salary of a first-year teacher. The book is required for the class.

So is "Fundamentals of Corporate Finance." Apparently, one of the fundamentals of corporate finance is to pay $162.35 for a textbook.

A Spanish language book sells for $61. It's called "Espana: Ayer y hoy," which, roughly translated, means, "Hoy, what a pricey book."

Want to see a student go Leona Helmsley on you in an instant? Just mention the price of college textbooks at any university.

"I hate buying stuff there," says Kyle Bowen, a sophomore who transferred to Utah from Dixie. "I've spent $400 in one semester for books. It's a rip-off."

"Chemistry — The Central Science" sells for $134.80. "Sociology," $105. "Psychology and Life," $122. "Inorganic Chemistry," $140. "Principles of Human Physiology," $155.75. "Contemporary Nutrition," $77. "World of Psychology," $80.

Maybe the covers are made of crushed diamonds.

"Personal Finance" costs $145.35, but it does include a personal financial planner, as noted on the cover. First entry in financial planner: Don't buy this book.

For $127 you can have your own copy of "Anatomy of Physiology for Speech, Language and Hearing," a book so thick it took three people to write it — Seikel, King, Drumright. Almost all textbooks are written by a group of authors — one to dictate, one to type and one to get lunch.

According to an employee, the University of Utah bookstore sells a geology book for $219, but it was nowhere to be found on the shelves. For that price, the book probably comes with a gold nugget.

By the way, every book in a campus bookstore has new and used prices — both of them expensive. "Macroeconomics" is typical — $149.35 new, $112 used, if you can find it. Most students think it's a complete mystery why used books are so difficult to find at the outset of each semester.

We had it all wrong. Colleges are really just bookstores with schools attached, not vice versa. The way it probably happened is that some enterprising businessmen met decades ago to discuss ways to sell more books and had an epiphany.

"I know! Let's open a university and require students to take certain classes and then require them to buy books for those classes and we can charge whatever we want. Then at the end of the semester, we'll buy them back at a pittance and resell them for 75 percent of the original price! Let's buy our yacht right now."

In theory, students can sell their books back to the bookstore at the end of the semester and get about half their money back; in theory, they can also build a 747 out of dirt.

Every student tells a story like this one: "I bought three books for $250 for one semester," says Utah State student Meagan Wagner. "At the end of the semester, they gave me $15 for them."

The way it works is — and this is genius — the authors repeatedly "update" their textbooks — called editions — rendering the "old" edition obsolete. "Human Geology" ($125), by Fellmann, Getis and Getis, is in its ninth edition, which means the bookstore won't buy back the eighth edition.

Apparently, the authors don't get it right the first time, or the second, third or fourth time, etc., so they keep adding stuff, such as commas and the words "new edition."

"I tried to sell a math book back to the bookstore and they said, 'Sorry, we're coming out with a new edition,"' says Wagner. "I didn't even get a dollar for it."

"I spent $140 for a biology book, and they gave me $40 back for it," says Bowen. "It's a rip-off."

Here's the real rub: Again, we'll let Wagner tell a story told by many students: "We were told we had to buy a biology book, and we didn't even use it."

Not that Wagner hasn't learned her lesson. "I bought my books online. I paid $30 for books that were more than $100 at the bookstore."

Spread the word.


Doug Robinson's column runs on Tuesday. Please send e-mail to drob@desnews.com.