Feds Step into Textbook Price Issue
August 27, 2006 8:47 PM
Stacked on a shelf in the SFSU Bookstore is a textbook “bundle” that costs $237. Despite the price, students will flock to snap up the books during the next two weeks of the semester said Robert Strong, the bookstore’s general manager.
The textbook bundle, “Organic Chemistry” published by Thomson Brooks and Cole, is in its newly minted sixth edition. That means last semester, when students attempted to sell back their fifth editions, the bookstore would not buy them.
Coincidentally, Strong said, it is essentially the same book he used when he was an undergraduate.
“The actual chemistry has not changed,” he said.
But the price of the book has.
Expensive textbooks are nothing new for college students, but now, after a barrage of reports and studies on textbook prices and the publishing industry in the last three years, the federal government is getting involved.
Last May, in the wake of a 51-page General Accounting Office report on textbook prices, a congressional committee asked an independent federal panel, The Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, to conduct a year-long investigation into textbook prices and how they impact the cost of a college education.
A letter sent to the panel from the House Committee on Education and the Workforce highlighted the need to “continue to shed light” on textbook prices, and to “make recommendations for Congress, the Secretary, and other stakeholders on what can be done to make textbooks more affordable.”
The GAO report concluded that textbook prices have increased an average of 6 percent each year since 1987, but average annual inflation has been just 3 percent.
The report also said that in the 2004-2005 school year, students at 4-year colleges spent an average $900 on books and supplies.
“We have been overwhelmed by the amount of interest in this study,” she said.
Renner said the investigation, using the GAO report as a base, will entail meeting with publishers, public interest groups, economists and college bookstore representatives over the course of the year and then presenting findings to legislators in May 2007.
The panel also plans on holding public, town-hall-style forums across the United States - including the Bay Area - though locations and times have yet to be determined, Renner said.
“Our goal is to highlight actions and steps,” she said.
The issue has been spearheaded by Congressman David Wu, D-Ore., who initially requested the GAO study in March 2004 and presented its findings in a press conference last year at Portland State University.
According to the GAO report, textbook prices are being affected by what publishers say is an increasing demand for, and investment into, supplements such as CD-ROMS, Web sites and instructional material.
“Investment in all our products is what drives our prices,” said Stacy Scarazzo, assistant director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, the trade group that represents major textbook publishers such as McGraw-Hill. Scarazzo said as much as 40 percent of the price of a textbook comes from the investment into it.
“Going online raises the cost of a book,” Scarazzo said.
The AAP supported the study and plans on working with the advisory panel, but in the end, Scarazzo said, some aspects of the GAO report were misleading.
“Our biggest concern is for people to misconstrue the numbers,” she said. For example, the $900 students spend on average each year goes to books and supplies, not just textbooks alone.
“The industry is very transparent,” she said. “We are not trying to hide anything.”
But some argue that additional supplements, frequent revisions of a textbook, and expensive technology may not be necessary at all.
“Rip-Off 101: How the Current Trends of the Textbook Industry Drive-Up the Cost of College Textbooks,” a study published in January 2004, says half of all new textbooks come “bundled,” and that 65 percent of faculty surveyed never or rarely use the bundled material.
The groundbreaking report published by CalPirg, a public interest research group, prompted Congressman Wu to request the more in-depth GAO study.
What impacts, if any, the new federal investigation will have on textbook prices is uncertain, though the AAP has already said any laws that attempt to restrict publishers will raise legal questions because it is a form of media, and therefore protected by the First Amendment.
“It’s a free market, and the government has limited power on what it can come in and do. It’s not like PG&E, books are not a monopoly,” SFSU Bookstore manager Strong said.
Meanwhile, SF State and its bookstore are dealing with the issue in their own way.
In response to the CalPirg report, the Academic Senate in April 2004 adopted a resolution denouncing publishers for what they called “mercenary publishing practices” and called for the bookstore to work with faculty to seek more affordable textbook alternatives for students.
But since then, change is slow and faculty are seemingly not grasping how big a role they can play in reducing costs, said Strong, who also teaches a course in marketing at SF State.
Just this year, only 52 percent of faculty at SF State turned in their book orders before buy-backs at the bookstore, said Strong. As a result, the bookstore could only buy back about half of the used books, therefore shrinking the size of the used book supply.
“We are trying to get to help them understand,” Strong said. “Sometimes faculty does not even know when it’s in a bundle.”
“Books that are used in class are chosen by the faculty,” he said. “As a faculty member, I know you can find cheaper books.”
Associated Students Inc. President Maire Fowler said their newly formed Project Connect program is helping out with a new book loan program for students who can’t afford new textbooks, but also thinks teachers play an important role.
Buying used books off Web sites like half.com and amazon.com is a well known alternative for students, but Strong said the fastest growing trend among students is to not even buy the book. He said about 40 percent of students are not buying.
“Students complain very frequently that they didn’t even use the book that they were told to buy,” Strong said.
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