By Timothy Z. LaComb
Two of the three dominant college textbook publishers – McGraw-Hill Education, Inc. and Cengage Learning Holdings II, Inc – have agreed to merge, creating a virtual duopoly in the college textbook market and setting the stage for a potential antitrust fight with the Antitrust Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. McGraw-Hill and Cengage claim the new company will generate global growth, improve margins, and produce efficiencies that will lead to more affordable education materials for students.
But several student and consumer groups disagree, arguing the merger will lead to decreased competition and higher prices for college textbooks. They also claim the post-merger entity will implement digital strategies (e.g., all-access digital subscriptions) that will: (1) force smaller competitors out of the market; (2) eliminate the secondary textbook market, which provides students a lower cost option for purchasing or renting textbooks; and (3) allow the two dominant publishers to collect and monopolize certain types of student data, including data showing students’ learning styles, students’ understanding of core concepts, students’ need additional assistance, and/or students’ risk of dropping out.
The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) has been one of the loudest critics of the merger. On August 14, 2019, SPARC sent a letter to the DOJ urging it to block the merger, arguing that it will “significantly decrease competition in a market already rife with anti-consumer behavior.”
In its section titled “The Textbook Market is Broken,” SPARC explains that college textbooks are sold in a “captive market” because students are forced to purchase the materials selected by their professors. This system “effectively hands the three major companies who currently dominate the market a blank check to develop expensive materials without regarding the preferences, needs, or financial circumstances of students. The textbook industry’s current state of dysfunction results from years of consolidation, unsustainable practices, and lack of price competition.” SPARC points to textbook pricing as an example of this dysfunction, as prices “have increased 184% over the last two decades — three times the rate of inflation.”
In a separate letter sent to the DOJ at the end of July, U.S. PIRG Education and student leaders from colleges across the country raised similar concerns. Specifically, the students explain they have “directly felt the impacts of skyrocketing textbook prices, further exacerbated by Cengage and McGraw-Hill’s efforts to remove cost-cutting options for students by undermining used book markets,” and that “[t]o maintain profit margins, publishers have put out custom or frequent new editions to make it difficult to find a used book for our classes ….” Citing a rather shocking statistic, the students claimed that “65% of students have skipped buying a book at some point in their college career because of cost despite 94% of them knowing it would hurt their grade.”
The students also identified several specific harms caused by “innovative” digital models employed in the textbook industry:
- The publishers issue expiring access codes to paid online platforms that students must also use to submit homework and test answers, destroying the used book market;
- Students cannot sell their materials at the end of the course or keep them or future reference, harming students who already cannot afford books;
- Automatic billing or so-called “inclusive access” means that students are automatically charged for materials, eliminating their ability to price shop; and
- Based on contracts proposed at some schools, publishers will continue to raise prices at the same rate that has led to the current affordability crisis.
The potential anticompetitive impacts of this merger are obvious and significant. Assuming the relevant market is the U.S. college textbook market, the merger is between two entities that each control more than 20% of an already highly concentrated market. Under relevant case law and the DOJ’s/FTC’s Horizontal Merger Guidelines, the merger presumptively increases market power for the post-merger entity and violates Section 7 of the Clayton Act. Moreover, the merging entities have made clear they intend to develop an all-access digital subscription service that, if adopted en masse, will likely eliminate both smaller competitors and the secondary market for college textbooks. Finally, by creating a virtual duopoly, the merger increases the likelihood of coordination among rivals. Considering these issues, the DOJ must take a very close look at this merger and implement conditions that address these issues if the merger is approved.
Edited by Tom Hagy for MoginRubin LLP