Reining in College Textbook Prices

Book costs aren't adding up

| August 11, 2005

With summer winding down, college students living on a shoestring are crunching numbers trying to figure what the cost of books will do to their budgets. According to the Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs, an effort run by a group of student Public Interest Resource Groups, co-eds with full workloads pay as much as $900 for their textbooks each school year. Student PIRG campaigners blame the exorbitant costs on publishers, whom they accuse of over-charging students and printing unnecessary new editions in an attempt to eliminate the market for used textbooks.

In April, student PIRGs gathered signatures from more than 700 physics and mathematics faculty members from some 150 universities on a petition requesting that textbook publisher Thomson Learning reduce the price of their popular Calculus text and stop releasing unneeded reprints. The company has since made some concessions, dropping prices on some campuses. The American Association of Publishers has countered the students' campaign by making statements and citing studies to refute the group's claims. For example, they assert that the actual average yearly cost of books for college students is only $625.

Publishers sometimes argue that it's the professors who demand new, updated editions. But Tomas Baer, a Professor of Chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill, disagrees. In a letter to The News & Observer, he says that in the case of a course like first-year chemistry, where the material hasn't changed in 20 years, updates aren't necessary every three years. He considers a ten-year cycle reasonable. The North Carolina newspaper's editorial page raises the issue of professors assigning their own books to students, perhaps exploiting a 'captive' market. Universities have offered few successful solutions to resolving this possible conflict of interest.

On Capitol Hill, Oregon Representative David Wu has been pushing for an amendment to the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005 that would tackle the issue of rising college textbook costs, Medford News reports. Wu wants publishers to stop driving up costs by bundling products like textbooks, CD-ROMS, and workbooks. That would give students the chance to buy items 'a la carte.' He also thinks publishers should be up front with faculty about how a text differs from previous editions, how long they estimate that edition will be in print, as well as the book's price.

Recently, Princeton University announced that it would sell downloadable digital textbooks in PDF format at two-thirds the price of print copies. MobileRead Networks points out that, despite the cheaper price, there are downsides. To name a few: the e-books have digital rights management encoding to prevent copying, printing is limited to short passages, and activation expires after five months. Meanwhile, other campuses are trying to include textbook renting, lending, swapping, and buy-back programs.

Go there >>Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs

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