GAO Report Shines Light on College Textbook Industry for Policymakers
Textbook Prices Increase With Bundled Packages and New Multimedia
September 1, 2005 6:50 PM
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office has stated that the rise in textbook prices may be attributed to bundled books: textbook packages that contain CD-ROMs, study guides and other forms of multimedia.
The GAO report, issued in July 2005, explained that textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation for the past two decades, and that book prices tripled between 1986 and 2004.
These bundled, shrink-wrapped packages usually cost students at least $100. They range in subjects from first year science to graduate-level business.
According to the report, publishers offer a discount on bundled packages, which can be a selling point among retailers and professors. Publishers have told GAO that they “incur significant costs to promote innovation,” and the increasing multimedia supplements are their way of keeping up with changing technology.
The report also states that in 2003, the average cost of books and supplies for a first-year, full-time student at a four-year college totals $898 for an academic year.
This issue has received over a year of attention on Capitol Hill, culminating in the report that, according to a bulletin from the National Association of College Stores, has captivated students, university faculty and higher education officials.
“Since I’ve been taking business courses, I’ve had to buy four bundled books and they have all cost over $100,” said Graziella Bileti, 20, a junior business administration major. She said that out of the four books, she has only needed the supplemental material from one.
“All we needed the extra disc for was to load a program onto our computer, and then we were done with it,” she said. “I don’t think that book publishers are willing to find an alternative way to sell.”
The American Association of Publishers countered the GAO report in August, with concerns that the report portrayed an unbalanced picture of the actual costs to students.
“Publishers strive to continually develop materials that meet the ever-evolving needs of faculty and students,” said Patricia Schroeder, the association’s president and chief executive officer, in an August press release. “[The GAO] relied on data that does not reflect the true cost of books to students.” Schroeder also said in the release that their research found that the average student spends $580 per year on textbooks, roughly $300 less than the GAO reported.
Supplies are more than pencils and notebooks, she said. “They may include computers, calculators and lab equipment … by combining textbooks and supplies [in their data], they created an inaccurate picture of the actual costs of textbooks to students.”
Schroeder also stated the report failed to include the money students receive for selling their textbooks back at the end of the semester.
“You can’t sell back those bundled books,” said Bileti. “They come wrapped and you can’t even get a refund unless it’s unopened.”
Sarah Ingham, a junior kinesiology major, has had to purchase expensive textbooks in the past. This semester she is taking second-year general chemistry, and the required text costs $145. It comes with a bonus study guide and “owl” guide.
“I need the owl guide, not the study guide,” said Ingham, 22. The bundled package will cost her an extra $20; she cannot buy the “owl” guide separately with a used text.
“I think [bundling] benefits the publisher, not the students,” she said. “I only get [a certain amount] in financial aid a semester and I have to spend it wisely and budget. The price of these books is becoming detrimental to my food and rent costs.”
Jane DeWitt, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at SF State, said that although the newer products in bundled packages claim to do more, students do not always have time to check out the multimedia options when faced with the assigned work in class.
“It gets overwhelming,” DeWitt said, “both for the instructor to sift through the [bundled] material to figure out what might actually help students, or for the students to surf through the material and find out what’s right for them.”
The National Association of College Stores will provide an in-depth look at the GAO report to college bookstores on Sept. 8. The GAO staff will explain the major points of the report and will allow NACS members the opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback.
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