Professors vow to fight rising cost of textbooks
April 24, 2008 1:26 PM
Every year, a sales representative comes to SF State to pitch the works of their publishing company. On one such occasion, Matthias Beck, an assistant professor of mathematics at SF State, asked the representative why the company charges so much for a particular textbook. The reply, he said, was, “because this is the going rate among publishers.”
“They charge that much because they can get away with it,” Beck said. “I don’t agree with that philosophy. I won’t buy into it, no pun intended.”
Along with Beck, 1,000 professors across the country have signed a statement of intent to fight against the “going rate” that publishing companies charge for textbooks.
Some universities—such as Harvard, California Institute of Technology and Yale—have alrea-dy put their frustration into action by employing open textbooks.
At SF State, at least six professors have signed the statement of intent, five of whom are in the mathematics department, which makes exten-sive use of textbooks.
According to California Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit at UC Berkeley, open textbooks are “complete, reviewed textbooks written by academics that can be used online at no cost and printed for a small cost. What sets them apart from conventional textbooks is their open license, which allows instructors and students flexibility to use, customize and print the textbook.”
CalPIRG released a statement on April 15 saying that a Government Accountability Office study found students spend an average $900 per year on textbooks.
Nicole Allen, a textbook advocate for CalPIRG, said that textbook affordability is a complex issue.
“The reason we’re doing this is because the textbook market doesn’t work like a normal market,” Allen said. “The professors who request the textbooks are not the ones who buy them. It removes price from consideration in the purchasing decision.”
Her campaign, Make Text-books Affordable, is working through a number of different strategies to give students more affordable options. One avenue is through legislation, namely the College Opportunity and Affordability Act. One part of the act is a requirement for publishing companies to disclose more information about the textbooks that are of interest to faculty.
“This legislation puts price on the table,” Allen said. “They will no longer be able to withhold price information. It will require the publishers to tell the faculty the substantial change in content between previous and current editions.”
By requesting a student to purchase a new edition, the prospect of buying cheaper, used versions from a friend, the campus bookstore or an online provider is automatically ruled out.
Aurora Mohr, 23, a double major in liberal studies and French, attested to this.
“It’s really upsetting because I would have been able to get the book I needed from another student who took the class,” she said. “But the syllabus said I had to get the ‘new edition.’ It’s such a waste of material. I mean, who gets the old ones?”
In addition to publishing new editions, bundling textbooks with supplements can force students to purchase unneeded items. Allen said it’s important to know that the faculty and campus bookstore are not instigating this issue. The publisher makes the overall price and bundles the books while the bookstore merely acts as a middle man and adds a service fee.
Wendy Johnson, the textbook manager for the SFSU Bookstore, said they are not responsible for deciding which books to purchase.
“We are here to support faculty by getting the materials they request for courses,” she said. “We are open to any different, cheaper alternatives that faculty would like to try.”
In order for an open textbook system to work, professors must be willing to write their own material or use material written by other academics. To keep the material affordable, the open textbook license requires authors to give up their right to make a profit, said Genki Hara, a 24-year-old coordinator for CalPIRG and a Berkeley student.
“A lot of professors don’t want to contribute their work for free,” Hara said. “We still have to figure out how to make a legitimate system with incentives and rewards. And at the same time, the material must remain cheaper than commercial textbooks.”
Eric Hsu, a 38-year-old associate professor of mathematics at SF State, said the differences in new editions are often negligible and ultimately costly for students.
“Calculus has been around for a while,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a difference between 90 percent of the books available. A typical calculus book consists of a lot of examples with some connecting text.”
Hsu said he became aware of the problem when he discovered how expensive the calculus textbooks were. Some of his students paid $200 for a textbook that “wasn’t that valuable.”
“I would much rather have a free one online,” Hsu said. “If people pitched in to a collaborative writing, it would be much better. It would be even better if the book was written with some engaging text and tries to bring much more rich meaning to a topic.”
CalPIRG’s textbook afforda-bility campaign is currently working on establishing a book swap system in addition to open textbooks online.
“Textbooks can price students out of higher education,” Hara said. “With costs rising faster than inflation and tuition, some students are faced with the difficult choice to drop out, take on additional debt or undercut their own learning by not purchasing textbooks.”
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