Before a student pays for an introductory biology course at Community College of Allegheny County, that student will know that the textbook will cost $120.75 new or $90.50 used.
The up-front disclosure of book prices and the exact ISBN identifying number of the book -- where practical -- is required under a new federal law aimed at reducing textbook prices through increased awareness and competition.
With the price of textbooks rising faster than inflation for many years, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., pushed to have the measure included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. Colleges had to comply with the provision by July 1 this year.
Mr. Durbin said at a news conference Wednesday that many instructors don't even know the cost of books they assign, but the new law requires publishers to tell instructors the retail price of books.
One of the reasons textbook prices have been rising, he said, is some are bundled with CDs, workbooks and other materials. Now publishers who bundle items also must have pricing for selling them separately.
The law also requires publishers to spell out the substantial revisions in new editions. Frequent revisions of books make it nearly impossible to sell or buy books used.
Proponents of the measure say the provision will enable professors to consider costs when selecting materials and will give students time to shop around for the best price.
They also want more instructors to use "open source" materials that are available free on the Internet.
D. Steven White, professor of marketing and international business at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, said two of the three courses he is teaching this fall will use open source materials at a savings of $11,000 for the 98 students. Next term, all three courses he teaches will use open source materials.
Dr. White is particularly empathetic because he has two children in college. Their textbooks run from $500 to $1,200 a semester.
"My son's physics textbook this fall cost $225," he said.
In classes he teaches, Dr. White has found some students can't afford to purchase textbooks and then ask to borrow his desk copy after they do poorly on the first exam.
"This has become more pronounced because of the economic downturn," he said.
At the news conference, Rashi Mangalick, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said, "Over half my friends did not buy a required textbook."
Colleges and universities are posting the information on their websites, although formats vary.
At Community College of Allegheny County, the textbook prices are listed course-by-course in the course selection area. At Duquesne University and the University of Pittsburgh, a link directs prospective students to the bookstore.
Making this work takes significant planning.
Penn State University spokesman Geoff Rushton said faculty members need to submit their textbook lists earlier than before so the lists are available when students start to select classes. Students can begin registering for spring 2011 classes on Sept. 16.
Carnegie Mellon University spokesman Ken Walters said the university for some time has provided a link in the registration to the campus bookstore for information and prices on materials.
He said the university also is looking at a textbook rental program as another way to lower student costs.
Education writer Eleanor Chute: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.