Efforts mount to cut costs of college textbooks
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With the cost of college textbooks soaring, schools, publishers and even lawmakers are looking for ways to ease the burden on students and their parents.
Last week, a congressional advisory committee held a public hearing to discuss a study that will offer recommendations on what the federal government, states and individual institutions can do to rein in textbook costs. The committee is also planning several regional hearings on textbook costs in coming months.
A number of states, including Connecticut, Virginia and Washington, recently passed laws that aim to make the professors who assign books more cost conscious or that cut back on the need to buy big packages of materials that may not all be used in class. Some measures are intended to give professors more pricing information when negotiating with publishers. In all, some 18 states this year saw legislation introduced that dealt with textbook costs, according to the National Association of College Stores.
In addition, student groups have formed projects to facilitate sharing or trading books. Schools and some professors are trying programs to encourage use of alternative teaching materials. Even publishers -- including Pearson PLC and Thomson Corp. -- are coming up with cheaper electronic alternatives and customized packages of texts that they say can be a more efficient use of materials.
The moves come in the wake of a Government Accountability Office study last year that showed that textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation over the past two decades. The average cost of books and supplies for a full-time in-state freshman at a four-year public college is $898, or roughly one-fourth of tuition and fees, the GAO said. While prices vary, books in some more-technical subjects such as science, economics and accounting can easily cost more than $100 each. The high prices are driven in part by the frequent updating of books with new editions and the increasing popularity of textbooks that come "bundled" with supplemental CDs, software and online tools, according to the GAO.
In introductory accounting, for instance, book prices range from $43.06 to $166.51 for a version that comes bundled with software and other extras, according to R.R. Bowker LLC, a New Providence, N.J.-based book tracker. The top seller, the 21st edition of "Accounting" published by Thomson, retails for an average of $133.33, according to Bowker.
College textbooks are a huge industry, with the combined sales of new and used books amounting to nearly $8 billion annually, according to the Association of American Publishers, a New York-based trade group. The publishing industry says that the rise of costly bundled textbooks is in response to demands from faculty. The educators say that many of today's students are ill-prepared and need supplemental material to succeed at the college level. At the same time, supplemental materials let faculty better handle larger class sizes amid reduced classroom support staff, says Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the AAP.
Mr. Hildebrand also disputes the usefulness of the $898 GAO figure, pointing out that "supplies" are part of the sum, which may include costly computers. He says the number is closer to $650.
At Pearson Education, a unit of London-based Pearson, spokeswoman Wendy Spiegel says the higher prices today are justified, and it isn't fair to compare the simple textbook of years past to the more elaborate bundled offerings of today. Ms. Spiegel says the more-frequent release of revised editions is driven largely by faculty asking for material that reflect swift changes in science and current events. Other major textbook publishers, including Houghton Mifflin Co., referred cost questions to the AAP.
One common complaint about bundled textbooks is that bookstores generally won't accept used CDs or other nonbook portions of packages for resale. Juan Pablo Moncayo, a senior at California State University, Fresno, tried buying a used accounting book this fall. But his professor also assigned some software that accompanied the book, which Mr. Moncayo couldn't buy used. It would have cost him about $100 to buy the package, he says, but it would have been about $120 to buy a used book and then the separate software. He ended up borrowing the book from a friend -- and buying just the software for about $50. "It no longer makes sense for me to buy a used book," says Mr. Moncayo.
Some of the latest efforts to curb costs are targeted at bundled textbook packages, as well as the feasibility of rolling out lower-cost book-rental programs. Virginia's textbook law, enacted last April, requires the state's public colleges to create policies regarding bundled texts: If a professor doesn't intend to use each item in a package, he or she must notify the bookstore, and the store must try to order the items individually if it's less costly.
A law in Washington state, enacted last March, requires bookstores affiliated with state colleges to inform faculty of textbooks' cost and how new editions vary from previous ones. In Connecticut, legislation enacted last May requires publishers to show professors the price at which they sell the text to the campus bookstore, as well as the text's history of revisions. While many professors write textbooks themselves, they often avoid assigning them in their own classes to avoid a conflict of interest, according to the Text and Academic Authors Association, and some schools monitor it.
Since the 2003 founding of a Make Textbooks Affordable campaign, formed by a coalition of student government associations and Student Public Interest Research Group chapters in 14 states, attention to the subject on campuses has picked up. The campaign works to assist faculty to negotiate better prices from publishers. It also promotes less-expensive ways for students to buy books, for instance by creating a message board that allows students to trade books with one another, says Sabrina Case, the Portland, Ore.-based campaign coordinator.
At the University of Maryland, College Park, sociology professor John Pease has mounted a campaign to encourage faculty to submit their required reading lists to bookstores well ahead of the start of the next term. That way, says Mr. Pease, students have enough time to sell their used books, and bookstores are better stocked with less-expensive used books for the next batch of students. The efforts are working: Last year, the campus University Book Center paid students about twice the amount of one year earlier for used books, says Mr. Pease.
Portland Community College in Oregon formed a Textbook Task Force last fall to look at ways of reducing costs for students. The task force urges professors to more effectively negotiate with publishers. One suggestion: Faculty teaching the same subject could band together to use the same text, which increases their market power in negotiations. The recommendations also discourage faculty from ordering textbooks bundled with supplements that may not be necessary.
Recent years have seen some alternatives to traditional textbooks. Publishers increasingly sell professors "custom" textbooks, where chapters may be culled from different textbooks to tailor a reader for a professor. Publishers argue that this may be more cost-effective for students, because they might pay less for one custom textbook than for several tomes they would otherwise have to buy. One downside is that students can't typically resell the custom text outside their own campus.
Electronic textbooks are another option. Students pay about half as much as a new textbook for password-protected access to an online version of the text, according to the GAO.
Hitting The Books
States are focusing on textbook costs.
A new Virginia law addresses the 'bundling' of textbooks with other materials.
Washington state requires bookstores to inform faculty of the costs and frequency of revisions.
Illinois is reviewing the feasibility of textbook-rental programs.
Ways to Save
Students on budgets can find ways of saving on costly textbooks. A few suggestions include:
Book swaps: You can trade books with other students on your campus through online book swaps. If one doesn't exist yet on your campus, try setting it up through CampusBookSwap.com
Check library reserves: If there's only one chapter being used from a pricey textbook, try using the copy on reserve.
Custom publishing: Ask faculty who are using small portions of various books to consider one "custom" book.
E-books: Generally cost about half as much as a new textbook.
First Published September 28, 2006 12:00 am