Stateline Story

States, Colleges Work to Cut Textbook Costs

  • August 28, 2007
  • By Pauline Vu

College students across the country are experiencing sticker shock at their bookstores. At the University of Maryland, a new Understanding Business book sells for $139. At the University of North Carolina, Tar Heels could shell out $153.35 for Principles of Economics. And at the University of Wisconsin, Chemistry and Chemical Reactivity goes for $109.90 - used.

But relief may be on the way as states and university officials move to lower the cost of college textbooks by taking aim at some publisher and faculty practices blamed for raising prices.

This year - when students at four-year public universities spent an average of $942 on books and supplies, the College Board reported - there were 86 bills in 27 states that dealt with textbook affordability, according to the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

Some of the bills proposed direct relief through sales-tax exemptions or credits and deductions, but the seven states that enacted laws - Arkansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington - largely targeted the behavior of publishers and college faculty. They follow the lead of Connecticut and Virginia, which in the last two years passed bills to cut textbook costs.

State and university officials have stepped up their efforts since a 2005 report by Congress' Government Accountability Office found that from 1986 to 2004,college textbook prices increased 186 percent, more than twice the rate of inflation. But over the same period, tuition rose 240 percent, and publishers and college bookstores say that increase is fueling the anger at textbook prices.

"The textbook thing is something that people have latched onto, and it's kind of easier to tackle," said Charles Schmidt, a NACS spokesman. "It's been the issue to show 'we're doing something to make higher education … more affordable and accessible."

According to the GAO report, many textbooks now come "bundled" with supplemental materials such as workbooks, study guides, CDs or online resources, driving up the price.

The jury is still out over whether the bundled materials are necessary. A survey by MassPIRG , the Massachusetts branch of the national Public Interest Research Group, reported that half of 287 surveyed professors said they never used the additional material. Yet a Zogby International survey found that 75 percent of professors nationwide either require or recommend that students buy textbook packages that include the add-ons.

Bruce Hildebrand of the Association of American Publishers, which commissioned the Zogby study, said professors request that textbooks be sold with the support packages to help students who may be unprepared for a college workload. Hildebrand added that complaints about bundling focus only on cost and not on the material's effectiveness.

"Is it better to give (students) the lowest-cost book and have them flunk out, or give them the book and the materials that merits their needs and have them get a return on their investment?" Hildebrand said. Critics' arguments "don't address quality, they don't address efficiency, they don't address pass rates, retention rates, graduation rates," he said.

This year, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Washington passed bills to encourage un-bundling. Oregon's new law, for example, requires publishers to give colleges the option of ordering bundled items separately.

Oregon's law also orders publishers to inform faculty how often a book is updated to help them decide whether it is necessary to require students to buy the latest edition, while Maryland's law sets up a study to look into the factors that drive up textbook prices.

Tennessee's and Washington's laws require that college bookstores inform professors of book prices before the placing orders. Tennessee also demands that professors turn in their textbook lists in a timely manner; the less time stores have to order books or students have to shop around, the pricier a textbook's final cost.

Arkansas's new law requires professors to post book lists by Nov. 1 for the spring term and by April 1 for summer and fall.

Arkansas state Sen. Sue Madison (D), whose district includes the University of Arkansas-Fayetteville and who proposed several textbook bills, said the new law is designed to avoid horror stories like the economics professor who ordered $5,000 worth of books for a class this fall and only last week switched texts.

"Some professors are notorious for this. They pick their book literally just before classes start," making it difficult for bookstores to find used books and tacking on high shipping charges, Madison said. 

Another new Arkansas law prohibits professors from receiving incentives from the publishing industry to require a specific text.

Two other textbook bills proposed by Madison died after questions were raised about whether the measures encroached on a university's academic freedom. The bills, which would have required professors to commit to using all bundled materials and prohibited books customized for a specific class or school because they are hard to re-sell, were left unsigned by Gov. Mike Beebe (D) after the state attorney general advised that they could be challenged under the state constitution, which grants autonomy to university boards.

University officials in Arizona, Nevada, North Carolina and Wisconsin also are working on initiatives to cut textbook prices. Last month, the Wisconsin Board of Regents ordered its universities to submit plans by December on how they will lower textbook prices after a study found that students pay about $300 for books at some state schools but about $950 at others.

The 16 universities of the University of North Carolina system have until January to set up a system to buy back the books of large entry-level courses or set up a potentially costly book rental program.

But students aren't waiting for lawmakers and university officials to act. Several UNC-Chapel Hill graduates run RAM Book & Supply, a private bookstore that launched a popular rental program earlier this year for introductory classes.

A Georgia Tech alum created bookant.com, where students at various universities can sell books to each other, while a Northwestern University student created NUOnlineBooks.com two years ago to allow students to compare textbook prices.

Tags: Education