updated 8/16/2005 3:03:28 AM ET 2005-08-16T07:03:28

Once just a weighty tome, the college textbook has evolved into a package including text, colorful supplements and software. But those bells and whistles — which critics and many students call unnecessary — are the main reason textbook prices are rising at more than twice the rate of inflation, according to a new government report.

The Government Accountability Office, in a study officially being released Tuesday, finds the average student spends nearly $900 on textbooks and supplies, or 26 percent of tuition and fees per year at typical public four-year colleges. At two-year colleges, which are cheaper but more likely to attract low-income students, the textbook and supply bill amounts to 72 percent of tuition and fees.

The report finds textbook prices have increased 186 percent since 1986, or about 6 percent per year. By comparison, consumer prices rose 72 percent over that period, and college tuition and fees rose 240 percent.

The GAO reports says publishers are investing heavily to expand the scope of their products, offering expensive supplements like online courseware. The report does not attempt, however, to answer whether these developments are good or bad for students, and the document was quickly attacked by the publishers’ trade group for using misleading data.

Publishers defend products
Publishers contend their new products aid learning and help overworked teachers instruct and evaluate. But critics say publishers are gouging students, “bundling” their products with unnecessary add-ons and undermining the market for used textbooks by coming out with new editions — even in subjects that evolve little if at all, such as Latin.

The report confirms “one, that textbook prices are a significant college cost; two, that textbook prices are skyrocketing; and three, that publishers’ practices contribute to the high costs of textbooks,” said Merriah Fairchild of the public interest group CALPIRG.

Rep. David Wu, D.-Ore., said he asked the GAO to study textbook prices because there was little unbiased data for policy-makers on how much textbooks cost and why prices were rising.

But the GAO report was quickly attacked by the Association of American Publishers.

The trade group agreed development costs for new technology were a major factor in price increases but said some of the data the GAO relied upon unfairly factored in costs for school supplies like computers and lab equipment that have nothing to do with textbooks.

Bruce Hildebrand, AAP’s executive director for higher education, said his organization believes the average student at a four-year college spends about $600 on all books and materials. He cited figures from the College Board concluding books account for about 6 percent of students’ full college costs.

Improved results ignored?
He also said the report ignores that students learn more from improved textbooks.

“The entire focus of what publishers do is to improve student success and none of the focus that I’m hearing from critics deals with student success,” he said.

The report comes as some students returning to campus this month find expanded options for trying to keep textbooks costs down. Eight colleges, including Princeton and the University or Oregon, will begin offering electronic versions of some textbooks at a 33 percent discount, though many observers are skeptical electronic books will catch on.

Wu said the market for textbooks was “broken” but “there’s a range of things we can do” short of heavy-handed congressional involvement. He noted the GAO report found prices increases have moderated the last few years.

“There’s some evidence that with the congressional interest in this topic, and the publicity around this topic, the price of college textbooks has plateaued,” he said. “There’s some benefit to continuing to shine a lot on this topic.”

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