Reining in College Textbook Prices

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

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

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

Go there too >>

It’s the Publishers

Related Links:

Comments? Story tips?
Write a letter to the editor

Like this? Want more?Subscribe to Utne

In-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.