Students Seek Alternatives as Textbook Prices Mount

The report, released by the members of the Student Public Interest Research Groups (Student PIRGs), a network of campus-based advocacy groups, said textbook companies are taking advantage of a skewed market in which students are forced to buy books assigned by professors.

Students spend an average of about $900 on textbooks every year, according to the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The GAO also found the price for books had tripled between 1986 and 2004, growing at twice the rate of inflation.

The Student PIRGs point out that "the party that orders textbooks -- faculty -- is not the same party that must purchase textbooks -- students -- removing price as a primary consideration in the ordering process." The group also notes that students have no way to "exert their own market power" by finding competitors with lower prices.

The Student PIRGs also criticized publishers for frequently releasing new editions -- often without adding significant educational value -- and thereby squelching a used-book market. Companies also add CD-ROMs and other supplementary "bells and whistles" that drive up costs.

Some companies offer low-cost alternatives to their texts such as softcover, spiral-bound books or online versions. But the Student PIRGs found that the 22 frequently assigned textbooks cost an average of $131.44. Less than half of these have less-expensive counterparts, and those ring up at an average of $65.32 apiece.

And two-thirds of the "low cost" textbooks reviewed by researchers were offered on websites separate from the company’s primary online catalog. The group also found that publishers often limit how students can use online texts. Some, for instance, restrict their ability to print out web pages, imposing challenges for students with infrequent Internet access or who have difficulty reading on a computer screen.

Publishers argue that textbooks are expensive to buy because they are expensive to produce. "Textbooks are a niche market, and the price to produce them is incredibly high, compared to, say, a novel, where thousands of copies are printed on cheaper paper and ink," Bruce Hildebrand of the Association of American Publishers told USA Today. "You don't realize how much it costs when you pay for rights for all the content, all the charts and art."

But some of the cost of the high-priced books is padding publishers’ profit. This July, McGraw-Hill, a major publisher, announced a profit of $121 million. The company Pearson reported profits of $802 million.

The Student PIRGs noted that a small-but-growing group of alternative publishers has sprung up, offering low-cost texts or free online educational materials. Professors who had used such materials in their classes responded positively overall to the quality and usefulness of the alternatives, according to PIRG.

For example, the student-run TextBookRevolution.org collects links to free online textbooks, many of which are first-year science or computer training texts.

While online textbooks are a new and growing development, they are "by no means the dominant force in the market," Dave Rosenfeld, a PIRG coordinator, told The NewStandard.

To expand the scope of services providing free online texts, the researchers encourage professors to use free materials found on sites such as Connexions to build their syllabi. Launched in 1999 by Rice University, Connexions allows academics to publish articles using the Creative Commons license, which is less restrictive than a traditional copyright, and use these materials as an alternative to assigning textbooks.

But with such reforms reliant on the goodwill of professors, many students have taken it upon themselves to minimize the financial drain of purchasing textbooks. Through websites such as WhyBuy.com, an "online bartering community" run by college students, users pay a $5 fee to swap textbooks rather than purchasing new or used ones at a bookstore. Other sites include BookSwap.com or TextSwap.com. Some universities and the website CraigsList.org also help students trade or sell books with each other rather than through a bookstore.

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