Bundled Books Ripoff Students
July 27, 2004 10:15 AM
Film major Nile Franklin spent about $700 on textbooks last year at SF State.
When she tried to sell back the textbooks at the end of the year, the bookstore bought less than half of her books. Franklin was told many had been replaced by new editions or could not be returned because the shrink-wrap had been removed. She received less than $100.
“It’s not like I’m going to use these books for the rest of my life,” 18-year-old Franklin said. “It’s for a couple of months.”
California students, already dealing with tuition and fee hikes averaging 12 percent to 14 percent each year, have complained that textbooks are another unfair financial burden. Those complaints prompted the California Public
Interest Research Group, or CALPIRG, to survey 521 students and 156 faculty at 10 California and Oregon campuses. Their report, released in January, found that college students spend an average of $898 per year on textbooks, an equivalent of 20 percent of the cost of tuition and fees.
The report, entitled “Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Costs of College Textbooks,” cited several reasons for the high cost including books “bundled” with CD-ROMs and workbooks, new editions that make used textbooks obsolete, and the lack of awareness by faculty of the cost of the books they require for their courses.
Merriah Fairchild, the author of the report, said one of the easiest ways publishers could reduce the cost of textbooks would be to sell them “unbundled,” which could reduce the cost by almost half. Fairchild also said publishers release new editions of texts too frequently and with few significant changes.
The CALPIRG report was unfair to book publishers, according to Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education of the Association of American Publishers. He said textbook publishing is an easy equation of supply and demand: the high cost of research and printing drive up the prices for a small market of sales where 40,000 copies sold qualifies a textbook as a best seller.
“The prices are fair and the books are the platinum standard in the world,” Hildebrand said. “Students can feel comfortable that they are getting the best possible price because no one is able to take advantage of the situation because the market is so competitive.”
If publishers could afford to offer cheaper textbooks, Hildebrand said they would. He said publishers are more than willing to sell textbooks any way the professors want them, whether bundled, unbundled or paperback.
“We don’t care where you’re from or who you are,” Hildebrand said. “If you would like to buy it, we’ll be happy to sell it to you.”
“For awhile you can update it in class,” Carr-Ruffino said. “But then you have people who adopted (the textbook) too and they like to see things up to date.
It’s sort of a matter of judgment. At what point is there enough new information that they really should have a new edition?”
“I know these things are expensive and I feel bad about it but I kind of consider it like fees and tuition. It’s part of getting an education to have materials,” she said.
Fairchild said professors don’t know the cost of textbooks because they never see the price. Textbook publishers send faculty free copies and marketing materials without a price list, she said. For example, students enrolled in Carr-Ruffino’s Business 682 class, Seminar of the Business Environment, will spend $156.30 on all new books and $117.30 for used books. Carr-Ruffino’s self-authored text is $27.70 new and $20.80 used.
So what can students due to save a few bucks?
”The most immediate thing the students could do would be to buy their books on an online book swap where they can buy them directly from each other,” Fairchild said. “That’s a great way that students can buy books for cheap and also they can make back money from their used books.”
Eve Pena, an international relations major at SF State, said she bought most of her textbooks for last year online at Half.com, where students can buy and sell directly to each other. She spent about $200 and found one book for $27 online. It cost $40.50 at the bookstore.
Other websites like Amazon.com/UK and DirectTextbook.com allow students to purchase books from overseas wholesalers and resellers, where they are often sold at half the price. Hildebrand said piracy, which publishers estimate total some $500 million in lost sales each year, and a lower standard of living force publishers to offer textbooks at much lower prices in order to compete in overseas markets.
While college bookstores owners favor used books, they aren’t as keen on the idea of students purchasing texts online.
“It does cut the bookstore out of the equation,” said Jennifer Libertowski, spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores. “Money spent on sites like Amazon is money out the door but money spent in the bookstores goes back into campus initiatives.”
Fairchild said students can also check out textbooks from the local public library or work with their student body association to start a book rental program on campus.
State and federal legislators are also trying to find ways to help students save on textbooks. A state Assembly bill currently before the California Senate would encourage publishers, college bookstores and faculty at CSUs and UCs to consider the cost to students when assigning, purchasing and selling textbooks.
The bill, AB 2477, has no enforcement power. But Bruce Hamlett, chief consultant for the state’s Assembly Higher Education Committee, said it is the first step in creating more awareness about the high cost of textbooks.
“The conclusion we’ve gotten is there is a shared responsibility for addressing the issue with publishers, faculty and bookstore owners,” Hamlett said. “All three have a role in trying to reduce the price and accessibility to materials.”
In October, U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, D-New York, released his own study that found college students in New York pay an average of $922 for textbooks each year and proposed a federal income tax deduction for the expense.
The U.S. Congress’ Committee on Education and the Workforce is currently investigating the high cost of textbooks for the General Accounting Office. A full report is expected in November.
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