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Textbook Costs Center of Controversy

The price of textbooks became a political issue last year when the California Public Interest Research Group released a report that accused publishers of gouging students, which prompted Congressman David Wu (D-Ore.) to request a GAO investigation.

The results of that investigation were released today, which found that textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of annual inflation over the last two decades, an average of 6 percent each year since 1987-1988 (a total increase of 186%), compared with overall price increases of 3 percent per year (total of 72%).

However, college tuition and fees rose 240% over that period. The average student, the report found, now spends about $900 on textbooks.

The report also found the cost of textbooks and supplies as a percentage of tuition and fees is 26 percent for a fulltime student attending a 4-year public institution, 72 percent for a fulltime student attending a 2-year public institution and 8 percent at a 4-year private institution.

The reports concludes, “While many factors affect textbook pricing, the increasing costs associated with developing products designed to accompany textbooks, such as CDROMs and other instructional supplements, best explain price increases in recent years. Publishers say they have increased investments in developing supplements in response to demand from instructors. Wholesalers, retailers, and others expressed concern that the proliferation of supplements and more frequent revisions might unnecessarily increase costs to students.”

The Association of American Publishers retorts that its research shows that students spend less than $600 for texts and that prices have risen only about 2.5% per year since 1988.

Patricia Schroeder, AAP’s president and chief executive officer, said in a release, “Our key concern with GAO’s report is that they relied on data that do not reflect the true cost of books to students. Two independently derived estimates – based on actual sales data from the National Association of College Stores (NACS) and the Association of American Publishers – confirmed that the average full-time equivalent student actually spends about $580 per year on textbooks, far less than the $898 figure used repeatedly in GAO’s report. GAO’s figure for the cost of books and supplies is based on unconfirmed estimates of student spending by those college administrators who complete the annual IPEDS survey.

“By combining textbooks and supplies,” she continued, “GAO created an inaccurate picture of the actual cost of textbooks to students. Supplies are not just pencils and notebooks; they may include computers, calculators, lab equipment, and other materials that represent at least 27 percent of total student spending on books and supplies. My members do not develop or produce supplies,” she sniffed.

Hmm, shocking it is not that the publisher’s trade organization would choose to cleave to a report which reflects more favorably on them, but that’s not how the GAO sees it. AAP’s concern about supplies being included in textbook costs seems reasonable, on the surface at least.

MakeTextbooksAffordable.com suggests these strategies for keeping down college textbook costs:

    1. Buy Textbooks Overseas Through the Internet. American publishers sell the same books overseas for as low as half the price of the American version. For example, Thomson Learning’s website sells Calculus: Early Transcendentals for $125 to American students, $97 ($125 C) to Canadian students and $65 (35 pounds) to British students…

    2. Use an Online Bookswap. Bookswaps allow students to buy and sell used books directly from each other. Several online bookswaps now exist…

    3. Ask Your Professors for the Previous Edition’s Syllabus. All too often publishers put out new editions without making substantive changes to the content. Every time a publisher produces a new, more expensive edition that has new page numbers, the professor has to create a new syllabus. Ask your professors if the previous edition was mostly the same. If so, ask if you can have a copy of the old syllabus. Then find a used copy online or from other students who took the class.

    4. Borrow a Free Copy From the Campus Library or your Professors. Publishing companies and their sales representatives send professors multiple free samples of textbooks as a way to promote new products. Many professors either keep these copies or donate them free copies to the campus library. Before you buy a book check to see if you can borrow that free book from either your professor or the library.

    5. Ask Your Professors to Negotiate Lower Prices and Longer Shelf Lives for Textbooks. The UCLA Math Department negotiated a 20% price cut in a popular Thomson Learning calculus book with just a little bit of pushing and the UC Santa Cruz Physics Department negotiated a reprint of a 1980 physics book that is just as good and much cheaper than brand new books. Let your professors know about these examples and ask them to try and do the same.

    6. Ask Your Professors to Order Textbooks Early. If the campus bookstore knows before the end of the quarter/semester that the professor is going to use the same book the next quarter/semester, the bookstore will pay more for used copies because they know they will be able to resell them. Encourage all of your professors to use the same book for as long as possible and submit their textbook orders to the bookstore before the end of the quarter/semester so students can sell their used books for more money.

    7. Ask your Professors to Order Textbooks Unbundled. A CALPIRG survey found that half of all textbooks now come “bundled” — or shrink-wrapped with additional instructional materials, such as CD-ROMs and workbooks. Some publishers tell professors the CD-ROMs and workbooks are free. The reality is the bundled items can dramatically increase the cost of a textbook. In one example, the bundle including the textbook was $130 and the textbook alone was only $60. Encourage your professors to order books unbundled and if they must bundle them, only order materials they know they will use.

    8. Contact the Publishers Directly. Publishers report that they are sensitive to their customers needs and are only publishing what faculty and students want. Tell them how you feel about bundled textbooks and unnecessary new editions….

    9. Contact Your Elected Officials. Many state legislatures including California, Connecticut and Illinois have started investigating the publishers’ practices. Congress has launched its own investigation that is due out this month. Call your state and federal representatives and share your personal story. If your representative knows students in their district are struggling to afford textbooks they are much more likely to take action….

    10. Start a Rental Service on Campus. Textbook rental services have been in existence for over a century and are in place at 20 colleges and universities around the country. Textbook rental fees range from $130 to $240 per year….

I will have two children in college this year – you can bet they will see these suggestions.

About Eric Olsen

Career media professional and serial entrepreneur Eric Olsen flung himself into the paranormal world in 2012, creating the America's Most Haunted brand and co-authoring the award-winning America's Most Haunted book, published by Berkley/Penguin in Sept, 2014. Olsen is co-host of the nationally syndicated broadcast and Internet radio talk show After Hours AM; his entertaining and informative America's Most Haunted website and social media outlets are must-reads: Twitter@amhaunted, Facebook.com/amhaunted, Pinterest America's Most Haunted. Olsen is also guitarist/singer for popular and wildly eclectic Cleveland cover band The Props.

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