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Let's Talk About Texts

The cost of college textbooks has long been spiraling out of control. Now, student groups and legislators are working bring them back down to earth.
 
 
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It's no surprise to hear that the costs of a college education are always increasing. Given the misguided priorities in Washington and in state capitols, students, parents and even the government are having to shoulder ever more of the burden of higher education.

What is more surprising, and substantially less defensible, is the skyrocketing price of textbooks. A report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July concluded that in the academic year 2003-2004, "students and their families spent over $6 billion [PDF link] on new and used textbooks."

Textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of annual inflation during the last two decades, an average of 6 percent each year since the 1987-1988 academic year. That should be a wake up call for consumers, but probably doesn't come as a shock to college students.

Today, students at four-year public schools spend roughly 26 percent of their budgets on textbooks alone. At a 2-year public institution, that cost leaps to 72 percent for a full-time student.

These outrageous numbers confirm previous studies conducted by Student Public Interest Research Groups ( Student PIRGs), a network of student organizations that determined that students spend an average of $900 a year on textbooks. At a community college, textbooks can cost as much as half of the annual tuition.

"Textbook prices have become even more of an issue than when you and I were in college," said Dave Rosenfeld, Program Director for Student PIRGs. Trying to turn the tide, Rosenfeld's group approached Congressman David Wu (D-OR), who in turn requested that the GAO conduct its own investigation. Since nearly half of all undergraduates currently receive some sort of federal financial aid, Congress certainly has a vested interest in the overall costs of college education.

Both Student PIRGs and the GAO found that the primary causes of skyrocketing textbook prices are development costs. Textbook publishers routinely "bundle," or package, textbooks with CD-ROMs, workbooks and other instructional supplements in order to jack up prices. "Bundling is a reasonably recent trend," Rosenfeld said, "and in our study for the last two years, we found that over half of college textbooks are now being packaged that way."

According to the GAO, the five major publishers who dominate the college textbook market claim that increases in part-time faculty at campuses nationwide has lead to increased demand for instructional supplements. The thinking there is that web-based tutorials, CD-ROMs, and self-assessment software will contribute to higher education. Yet, the fundamental flaw with that logic is that packaging these materials with textbooks automatically precludes students from purchasing less expensive used books.

Another major factor in the high cost of educational texts is the printing of unnecessary new editions. Ten years ago, publishers would generally revise their textbooks every 4 to 5 years, whereas today that revision cycle is down to 3 to 4 years. In the GAO report, publishers claimed that updated editions are necessary to defray the costs of their investments and keep material current for faculty members. Again, however, the onslaught of frequent revisions prevents students from seeking used alternatives.

Students aren't the only ones who are outraged by the preponderance of overpriced texts. As part of the Make Textbooks Available Campaign, 500 math and 200 physics professors signed letters to textbook publisher Thomson Learning, Inc., expressing grave concern over costly revised editions. "Considering the basics of calculus haven't changed much in many, many years," said Rosenfeld, "those faculty members had a valid point."

In the L.A. Times last Sunday, J. Bruce Hildebrand, Executive Director for Higher Education at the Association of American Publishers in Washington, responded to the GAO report. "Professors want these [supplemental] materials because it improves the success rate of their students. Yes, books can be expensive, but they don't have to be. We are like a car dealer. We ask do you want leather or do you want cloth? Do you want the cheap radio or the expensive one? Whatever you want, we've got it."

Based on the GAO's findings, however, it seems that Hildebrand is more like a used-car salesman. While it's true that some publishers offer low-cost versions of their books -- custom books print only the chapters that professors want, while black-and-white texts are cheaper alternatives to color -- those options aren't often advertised. "Publishers are treating the American textbook market like the Wild West," Rosenfeld claimed. "They charge as much as they can get away with charging."

There are ways to avoid buying publishers' overpriced lemons, however. Because publishers price their textbooks to compete in local markets, American publishers sell the same books overseas for a fraction of the cost. Take Calculus: Early Transcendentals, the math edition that had 500 faculty members writing to Thomson Learning. On the Thomson website, this textbook sells for $125 to American students. By contrast, the same book goes for $97 in Canada and $65 in England (or roughly $125 Canadian and 35 pounds, respectively). Thanks to the Internet, it is possible to purchase the cheaper versions, even though it means the added cost of shipping. To shop around, check out www.amazon.co.uk and CampusBooks.com.

One of the reasons publishers are able to sell more-affordable books abroad, as stated in the GAO report, is that once publishers incur the initial costs of development, the costs of reprinting texts for sale abroad are considerably less. Publishers, then, are able to compete in foreign markets where competitors offer locally produced books at lower prices.

Of course, publishers and retailers are concerned that foreign book sales through online distributors will hurt sales domestically. The National Association of College Stores has even asked publishers to cease selling textbooks at lower rates abroad because they are so concerned over what is known as the "re-importation" of lower-priced books.

In addition to using the Internet to buy books abroad, Student PIRGs suggest online book swaps for buying and selling used books. (This is a great alternative for students selling books as well, especially when compared to the laughable buyback rates offered by most campus bookstores.)

Student PIRGs also recommend borrowing free copies in campus libraries, asking a professor for a previous edition's syllabus, or even creating a textbook rental service on campus (see Affordable Textbooks for the 21st Century guide on the Make Textbooks Affordable website).

But Dave Rosenfeld and other Student PIRGs feel that getting around the ridiculous prices of college textbooks is not enough. "The education market should be held to a higher standard," he said, "making books and materials less expensive to make them more accessible for everyone." To that end, the Student PIRGs are urging professors to negotiate lower prices with publishers. Last year, the UCLA Math Department convinced Thomson Learning to cut their prices on a popular calculus book by 20 percent.

Meanwhile, both students and professors (not to mention consumer advocates everywhere) should contact publishers and elected officials to ask that textbooks be published unbundled. Rep. Wu has already heeded the call. Next month, Congress will debate the Higher Education Act, which includes an amendment sponsored by Wu that asks publishers to sell textbooks, workbooks, and supplementary software separately.

School can be enough of a challenge without adding financial woes to the academic ones. Hopefully, these campaigns will make sure the high costs of educational texts won't continue to burden college students.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a freelance writer living in Astoria, NY. Currently, he's an assistant editor for Dell Magazines.