Over the last 20 years, textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation, and with the weakening economy, college students look for ways to curb the cost of their required readings.
The price of college textbooks nearly tripled between 1986 and 2004, increasing 186 percent during that time, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. The study found costs averaging $898 a year for a student attending a four-year public university.
This accounted for an average of 26 percent of the total a student paid to attend a four-year public university during the 2003-2004 academic year.
"Textbook prices are absurd," said Memoria James, a Spanish professor at the University of Texas. "It goes against what education stands for. It can hold back students who are trying to better themselves."
For students attending two-year public schools, the average cost of textbooks was $886 each year, or 72 percent of their total tuition costs. These numbers suggest that community college students have disproportionately endured the increase in textbook prices.
More recently, the College Board estimated that the cost of books and supplies for the 2007-2008 school year was between $805 and $1,229, depending on the type of institution a student attended.
The GAO report, produced in 2005, found that bundled enhancements contributed to the increasing price of textbooks. These packages include supporting material for the textbook. For example, a Spanish bundle might include the required textbook, a student manual, videos, listening exercise CDs, a Spanish-English dictionary and quick guides to Spanish grammar.
If the student only needs the textbook, but it is offered only in the bundled form, the student might be required to purchase unnecessary items.
Chad Stith, the director of course materials at the UT University Co-Op Bookstore, discussed this issue. "Yes, we do sell textbooks and materials that are only offered in bundled packages," he said. "It is not something we do by choice, though."
Stith said that the federal Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 will require publishers to offer all of the textbooks and additional resources individually beginning in 2010. This will allow college students to buy only the items needed for their courses.
In several cases, students find that purchasing an international edition and paying for shipping charges is less expensive than buying a textbook locally. Publishers are attempting to disallow this practice through restrictive contracts that prohibit reimporting textbooks from foreign markets.
"I've purchased a foreign edition online," said Cory Regal, a petroleum engineering major at UT. "It took a little longer to get, but even after shipping charges, I saved about $55. Well worth the wait."
Textbook price increases can also be attributed to the frequent publishing of new and revised editions and textbook enhancements. Publishers and writers only receive profits and royalties on textbooks the first time they are sold, so it is not uncommon for new editions to be released every two or three years, often with only minor supplements added.