Students Seek Ways to Cut Textbook Costs

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.

Bundles Add Cost

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.

Foreign Markets Cheaper

Publishers also acknowledged in the GAO report that identical textbooks are often less expensive in foreign markets.

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.

Additions Boost Price

The GAO does support publishers' arguments that the prices reflect "the increased investment publishers have made in new products to enhance instruction and learning." These advancements include technology applications such as online homework, quizzes, lesson plans and multimedia lectures.

But some students say the costs outweigh the benefits.

"The online material does go more in depth than the textbook," said UT freshman Allison Harris. "I just don't feel like I even use it enough for what I paid."

Across the board, textbook prices worry students. The demand for discounted textbooks is evident through the market of resellers and wholesalers.

Student organizations, online sites and electronic editions all attempt to get textbooks to the students at reduced rates.

The University Co-Op, for example, allows students to list their textbooks online to eliminate the middleman and sell directly to students for a higher return on textbook sell-backs.

At Towson University in Maryland, the student government set up a Web site where students can sell books to one another. And that state's Board of Regents is looking into ways to reduce or limit cost increases.

And at the University of Alabama, the student government has asked the faculty senate to vote to keep costs down through careful selection of textbooks.

Online Editions Grow

Online textbook editions have recently become more prevalent nationally. According to the GAO study, student response to this method has been mixed. Electronic textbook editions cannot be resold, and many students say they get tired of reading computer screens.

On the other hand, these versions retail for a lower price than the hard copies and offer the option of printing out pages. UT is set to have about 1,000 students participate in an electronic textbook trial next academic year.

Students taking chemistry, biochemistry, marketing, and accounting classes could be eligible for the trial, but specific courses are still being decided.

Online Web sites for new, used and international textbooks are very popular among college students. These sites allow students to search and compare prices from different sellers, and often cost no more than a few dollars for shipping charges.

Turning to Amazon

"I use for most of my textbook purchases," said Michelle Moreno, a senior at UT. "Delivery only takes about a week, and there is a 30-day return policy," she said. "I spend $300 tops on books each semester."

Beginning in 2010, new federal laws will be in place in an effort to help make textbook prices clear and eliminate surprises, which is often called "sticker shock." The law is designed to ensure that colleges and faculty members have all the textbook pricing information when making their purchase assessments every year.

The law will also require marketers to post textbook prices of new editions before a student opts to take the class. This will equip students with advance information to make it easier to plan for expenses every academic year.

"I paid about $650 for books this semester," said Reza Farahani, an accounting major at Concordia University in Austin. "It will probably be that much next semester, too, and knowing how much a textbook is going to be in advance won't really help me. You've still got to pay the ridiculous amount."