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'Required reading': As textbook prices soar, students try to cope

Priya Shivraj, 21, a college student at NYU majoring in biology, Spanish and pre-med, with
Priya Shivraj, 21, a college student at NYU majoring in biology, Spanish and pre-med, spentJohn Brecher / NBC News

Hitting the books can be a serious hit in the wallet these days.

Already grappling with skyrocketing tuition and fees, college students also must contend with triple-digit inflation on the price of textbooks. With the average student shelling out $1,200 a year just on books, students, professors and policy groups are searching for ways to circumvent the high cost of traditional textbooks.

It’s no simple multiple-choice question. Growing rental and e-book markets lower prices but come with a convenience cost. Budding open-source textbook programs hold promise but aren’t mainstream yet. Meanwhile, the U.S. Public Interest Research Group says 70 percent of students admit they just skip buying some books, saving money but often inflicting a high price on their academic success.

“It’s getting to the point where students can‘t afford them anymore,” said Nicole Allen, director of the open educational resources program at the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. “It limits access they need to complete their education, which can undercut their ability to perform in class.”

The College Board found that the average student at a four-year public college spends $1,200 on “books and supplies,” or nearly $1,250 if they go to a private school. On the public policy blog of the American Enterprise Institute, where he is a fellow, University of Michigan-Flint economics professor Mark J. Perry highlighted a chart showing an 812 percent increase in the cost of college textbooks since 1978, a jump even higher than the percentage growth in the cost of health care.

“Students are, in essence, a captive market,” said Ethan Senack, higher education associate at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. “The publishing industry is dominated by five companies that dominate upwards of 85 percent of the market.”

“I think part of it is the consolidation… There’s less competition now,” Perry said. “The other thing that irritates students and professors quite a bit is they’ve really sped up the publishing schedule,” with new editions coming out every couple of years.

Val Maharaj, a senior at New York University pursuing a double major in biology and philosophy, said he saved about $140 buying an old edition of a textbook this semester. The bulk of the material was the same, he said, but even small changes were frustrating. “The page numbers are much different between editions. I could follow it by section but I think it’s a little more convenient to know exactly what pages the professor is assigning,” he said.

Flooding the market with new books also makes old ones less valuable. “Some of the books I was able to sell back, but with the science textbooks, new editions come out so frequently… it was useless to sell,” said Priya Shivraj, a senior double majoring in biology and Spanish at New York University.

Although the National Association of College Stores puts the average cost of a used book at about 75 percent the price of a new one, students reselling books don’t necessarily see that kind of return. “Last semester I paid $80 for a textbook and it only sold back for $12,” said Rebecca Mallay, a psychology major in her senior year at Hunter College of The City University of New York.

Many new textbooks, especially in the sciences, come bundled with CDs, workbooks or other content. Shivraj said her organic chemistry book cost $200, plus an additional $100 for a study guide and CD.

Programs California and Washington state, and in the Canadian province of British Columbia, aim to break publishing’s lock on the market by developing online libraries of college textbooks developed under a creative common license, like Wikipedia content.

“A very fast-growing movement right now is the idea of open textbooks,” said David Ernst, chief information officer in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota, which is creating a searchable catalog of these books.

A nonprofit called the OpenStax College, started at Rice University in Texas, has received funding from sources like the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop a library of open textbooks written and peer-reviewed by academic experts.

“We have about 300 schools using these materials, they’ve been viewed 1.8 million times… and we’ve saved students over $4 million already,” said OpenStax College editor-in-chief David Harris.

“We’re seeing a dichotomy,” Allen said. “We’re seeing new textbook prices rise rapidly, but we’re also seeing more ways for students to save money,” such as rental programs and electronic versions. “But this isn’t solving the problem for all students,” she cautioned, and most open textbook projects are still in their infancy.

Aside from combing the web for used copies or international editions, which can be cheaper, market research firm Student Monitor LLC found that nearly 10 percent of students now rent textbooks, and about half as many use e-books.

Students are quick to point out, though, that you’re not allowed to highlight or take notes in rental books, and it can be cumbersome on digital versions.

“Sometimes I buy e-books because it’s cheaper,” said Anushah Hossain, a junior double majoring in economics and history at the University of California, Berkeley. Hossain said she was able to lower a $100 textbook purchase by about a third by using digital editions, but the trade-off means lugging her laptop around.

“You can write in the textbook and take your own notes. I find that harder with the e-books,” said Mallay.

E-books also often come with an access code that’s nontransferable or has an expiration date, so students can’t make money selling the book back at the end of the semester.

Relying on loaners or just skipping textbook purchases are common default options for strapped students, but this can disrupt study habits and cut into productivity.

Hossain said she hasn’t bought all her books yet because she’s waiting for prices to fall as the semester goes on, but that has its own price.

“I have to plan my studying around our library’s loan system. You can go in for two hours and borrow it,” she said. As with rentals, marking up library books is forbidden, making note-taking more difficult.

“In one class, I’m behind on my reading because I don’t have the textbook yet,” she said. “You just get a lot more out of a lecture when you have the foundation of understanding from the textbook.”

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