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Delving Into Textbook Costs

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CREDIT: Flickr / Marquette La

With the costs of tuition and housing growing about as rapidly as the available free storage on a Google e-mail account, something needs to give. Textbooks are expensive and unpredictable—shouldn’t those costs be reined in?

The Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) released Rip-off 101 (PDF) in 2004, a study that revealed textbook prices grew at four times the rate of inflation and that the publishing industry was mostly to blame.

“It’s not an economic system built for competition on price,” says PIRG advocate Nicole Allen, who heads the "Make Textbooks Affordable" campaign for the public policy group. “Things happen in the textbook market that shouldn’t happen, like charging $250 for a book on material that hasn’t changed in 200 years, or engaging in practice of bundling and releasing new editions every few years regardless of changes to content.”

New editions vs. the used textbook market

The rate at which textbooks companies are publishing new editions has increased over the years. Five years ago, major publishers released new editions every four years; now, according to Tim Porter, bookstore manager at Schenectady, N. Y.’s Union College, the rate is closer to every 15 months, cutting down on the time an edition can float on the used market, where it can save a student over 50 percent when compared to a new copy. It’s possible that this spike is explained by the increasing popularity of used textbooks.

Bruce Hildebrand, executive director of Higher Education at the American Association of Publishers, an organization that represents the interests of the textbook industry, offers a different figure: He says the time between editions is 3.9 years. “And it has not changed. The frequency has not changed in decades.”

Porter says he began noticing publishers were releasing textbooks more quickly six or seven years ago, while monitoring how often the textbooks requested by professors were being released as new editions. Indeed, a quick look at some more popular textbooks seems to suggest a faster pace than what Hildebrand claims. Business, published by Cengage and written by Pride, Hughes, and Kapoor will have gone through four editions in six years once the 2011 edition is released.

New regulations and what they do

As criticism of textbook prices increased following PIRG's study, Congress began to take on the issue. As a result, it enacted a provision within the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 that forced publishers and colleges to amend the practices that seemed to drive up the cost of books for students.

The textbook rules went into effect this July and addressed much of what was brought to light by the Rip-Off study. Now publishers are expected to inform professors of the wholesale and retail prices of textbooks. Publishers must also delineate the changes made to new editions and inform professors of any alternative formats that could be cheaper than the traditional hardcover edition.

Allen says the new disclosures are important because students are caught over a barrel when it comes to purchasing books: “Students don’t have any economic power; they have to buy the books no matter what they cost.”

Hildebrand, who advocates on behalf of the industry, thinks the disclosure rules are redundant, since faculty tend to stay abreast of changes to new editions. “Faculty are very choosy, and they are the people who want to know if the book is changed sufficiently so that they should adopt it, or whether they should go to another textbook that better meets their needs,” he says.

During debates over the textbook legislation, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), stated that many professors don’t know how much money their students spend on course books.

But Eric Oifer, a professor of political science at Santa Monica Community College in California, says politicians are underestimating how important it is to educators: “We think about this issue a lot. Only those who don't work in education would even think that we don't.”

Hildebrand agrees. “The people you’re dealing with are largely Ph.D.s, and this is their specialty and their livelihood, and I don’t know why anybody would insult the instructors and the faculty by assuming they don’t know or can’t find out or won’t find out [the cost of textbooks],” he says.

In a policy wrap-up of the HEOA textbook provisions, PIRG says 94 percent of the professors they surveyed would choose the cheaper of two equal options.

The textbook rules limit ‘bundling’ as well—a practice in which publishers shrink-wrap ancillary items like study guides and compact discs together with the textbook. Allen says that gimmick jacks up the cost of the textbook by anywhere from 10 to 50 percent. The new rules say publishers must offer students a choice of a bundled package or just the book.

What colleges are doing to curb textbook costs

Colleges have also been asked to take a role in reducing textbook costs: The new law requires colleges to notify students of the required textbooks for courses months in advance. This allows students time to scrounge for cheaper alternatives, which can include book rentals, chapter rentals, e-books, open source variants, book swaps, and the used textbook market.

Oifer says his community college explored ways to cut costs to textbooks by buying them in bulk across the academic departments, which is sometimes called a “common adoption of courses.” The tactic failed in their case, mostly because the departments couldn’t reach a consensus on which titles to buy.

“In some fields, common adoption simply doesn't make pedagogical sense,” Oifer says. Professors have autonomy over the coursework they assign to students and the expectations they set which may not match other departments, even if they're teaching similar material.

Oifer says he keeps his students’ book budgets low. In his Contemporary Political Thought course, he relies on secondhand copies or free websites that offer translations of thinkers like Marx and Nietzsche. He used a site called Squashed Philosophers for a while, but was disappointed with its Nietzsche literature and asked his students to purchase copies of Beyond Good and Evil. Amazon.com sells a copy for under $10.

Open source and digital textbooks

Flat World Knowledge, an open source textbook publisher that offers creative commons licensing agreements with students, professors, and schools, is one new company attempting to reduce costs. In August, the publishing start-up signed a licensing agreement with Virginia State University, a school where roughly 90 percent of its students are on financial aid. The arrangement gives all VSU business students access to Flat World’s free online textbooks plus additional learning guides for a fixed price.

The company’s prices are low—a color textbook costs $60, chapter purchases are at $2 each, and there are no copying restrictions or time limits on the digital files as there are with major publishers. The school purchased a thousand licenses for $19.95 a student. The deal’s estimated savings are about 80 percent for the typical VSU business student.

Before “the cost of textbooks was literally unaffordable to the students. That was creating dropouts, poor performance,” says Eric Frank, Flat World’s co-founder and president. Now, business students have the course material they need, greatly boosting their academic experience.

Sen. Durbin, who was crucial to the textbook provisions in 2008’s HEOA, has also written a new bill that would use federal grant dollars to incentivize publishers and other professionals to create or update open-source textbooks. The Open College Textbook Act has already been introduced to the HELP Committee.

The data on textbook costs

Hildebrand points to recent data from Student Monitor, a student marketing agency, that shows average student spending on textbooks has been flat or declining since spring 2006. “The average 4-year college student spent $659 in 2009, down 7 percent from 2008, and less than the average spent in 2005. Adjusted for inflation, the average student spent 8 percent less for textbooks in 2009 than in 2001,” Student Monitor reported.

Hildebrand says he ultimately supported the textbook regulation, but he also doubted its efficacy. “According to the College Board’s 2009 Trends in College Pricing (PDF), books and supplies are actually one of the smallest expenses,” he says. “Even for public two-year commuter students for whom expenses such as ’Tuition and Fees,’ ’Room and Board,’ and ‘Other Expenses’ are all greater.”

But for the 2.9 million students in the California Community College system, textbooks are, in fact, the largest single expense. The state's auditor found that textbooks amount to almost 60 percent of the total cost of attendance in 2008 (PDF).

“Textbooks are a ‘tipping point’ expense,” PIRG’s Allen says. “Unlike other college costs, textbooks are highly unpredictable—$800 one semester, $300 the next.”

Because students frequently didn't know the cost of books until a few weeks before class, it made it difficult to plan ahead. “After scraping together enough for tuition, fees, room and board, a $450 hit could easily tip students over the edge into additional loans or credit card debt, working longer hours, or in extreme cases, dropping out,” she adds.

The College Board calculated in 2007 textbooks cost $850-$1,229 each year for students on average. The Department of Education’s Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance puts the number at $700 to $1,000.

Perhaps the reason textbooks are so expensive is because of a real lack of competition. Three textbook publishers claim 80 percent of the market. What PIRG advocates for, and what new players like Flat World represent, is a market-oriented approach that allows alternative formats of textbooks to reach as many students as possible. Like a handful of recent legislative efforts, the terms of the debate are less ideological than they are practical.

As far as the cost of individual textbooks are concerned, discussing the average price of books is different from acknowledging some titles are far more popular—and far more expensive—than others. While the National Association of College Stores reports the average retail price of new textbooks went up from $56 in 2006-07 to $57 in 2007-08, PIRG’s Allen offers a caveat.

“There may be 100 different types of calculus textbooks at prices ranging from $25-$250 … but a handful of books like Stewart's Calculus [$224.95] and Larson/Edwards [$216.95] dominate the market,” she says.

Well-intentioned but unenforceable?

By virtue of being a new piece of legislation, the textbook law lacks an enforcement mechanism. This is common for new laws that haven’t been tested in courts or enforced by the respective government body, in this case, the Department of Education. But the legislation does allow for increased scrutiny. With textbook publishers under the microscope, there is an expectation they'll follow HEOA textbook provisions.

And if they misbehave? Says Allen, “We’re going to be watching the publishers. If we catch them not coming through on their requirements, we’re definitely taking it to the press.”

Companies like Flat World Knowledge are finding profitable methods under which students pay less and authors are paid more. Used textbooks are becoming more popular than ever, with online booksellers connecting students to each other. And though Durbin's open source textbook legislation might be languishing with mountains of other things on Congress' "to do" list, the open source textbook movement is real. Perhaps soon, students will get a break on textbook costs.

Mikhail Zinshteyn is a staff writer for Campus Progress. You can e-mail him at mzinshteyn@googlemail.com.

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