By Georgina Fetterhoff
Think textbooks cost too much? Some students are fighting back.
On October 21, 2010 students from more than forty colleges united to spread the word about textbook affordability solutions calling it “Affordable Textbooks Day of Action.”
The protest was organized nationally by the Student Public Interest Research Group (PRIG), and intended to educate college faculty about the price of textbooks and their alternatives, such as open-source books. Open-source texts are offered online, allow free access, and low-cost print options.
When I first went to college 20 years ago I remember being shocked that my Accounting I textbook was a little over $50. Of course it did include a 5 and one-quarter inch floppy disk with a program to use for the class, but it was still shocking that one book for one class could be so expensive. I returned to school in the fall of 2010 and was shocked again by the $109.75 price tag on my textbook at the college bookstore. I couldn’t imagine why a textbook that is soft covered and full of pictures could cost so much. There wasn’t a CD-ROM or anything with it. In 20 years the price of a textbook for me had doubled.
The University of California at Berkeley put together a task force in 2010 to try to figure out a way to tackle the cost of textbooks. In their findings they showed that the average full-time college student spent $800-$1000 per year just for textbooks. In comparison to the cost of tuition at a community college, the cost of a course textbook can be 40-50 percent of the cost of the course itself. In short, after buying two books at full retail price you could have paid for another course.
Used book prices are normally 75 percent of the original price and student buy-back prices are only around 28 percent of the original price. While it seems that college bookstores make a good profit in selling new and used textbooks, that really isn’t the case. The cost breakdown of a new college textbook according to the National Association of College Stores is 76.6 percent for the textbook’s wholesale cost, 11 percent for the college store personnel, 7.3 percent for the store operations, 4 percent for the store’s profit, and 1.1 percent for shipping the book.
College bookstore profit from new book sales hasn’t changed much since 1989, and it doesn’t seem that college bookstores are the problem. In fact, according to the National Association of College Stores, their gross margin for used book sales is only about 13 percent higher over the past 20 years. Most college bookstores (not privately owned) use the profit they make off new and used book sales to fund student services and scholarships. Knowing that the profit college bookstores make on textbooks goes to the students makes me want to sell my books back to them even if it’s at a lower price. The United States Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) reported in 2005 that the price of college textbooks increased four times the rate of inflation since 1994 and publishers appear to be the cause.
“Publishers use needless new editions and gimmicks to drive up the cost of textbooks,” the PIRG reported. “The losers in this scam are students who will have a harder time paying for college.”
Some publishers bundle textbooks with CD-ROMs and workbooks that are priced higher than buying the pieces separately, PIRG reported. Not all teachers will use a companion workbook or CD-ROM, but students may not have a choice in whether or not to purchase the bundled items.
I fell prey to this scheme with the purchase of my programming course textbook. I had to purchase the 2010 edition, which came bundled with an access card. The card is sold separately for $20 for individuals who buy the book used, but the new book is not sold separately from the access card. Since it was a 2010 edition there were no used ones available. I did not need nor did I use the access card.
In 2008 the Higher Education Opportunity Act was passed in Congress which went into effect on July 1, 2010. The Act contains three provisions:
• Publishers must disclose textbook prices and revision information to faculty during the marketing process.
• Publishers must offer unbundled versions of textbooks.
• Colleges must include the list of assigned textbooks during course registration.
In addition to the new regulations that are now in effect and students’ options to purchase textbooks from different sources, perhaps the publishers will get the message.
In the meantime, there are different ways to get the textbooks you need. You can buy them new or used from your college bookstore or online, you can rent a copy, or you can buy or rent a digital copy. With colleges now being better informed of the changes from one edition to the next — plus having to choose and announce textbooks earlier — you should have more time to shop around. Adding to that the choice of whether or not to buy a bundle, hopefully you will be able to find books that fit your budget.