Nobody likes shelling out cash at the beginning of the semester. By the time you and your family have paid for a meal plan, housing, and tuition — or filed loan applications — purchasing hundreds of dollars' worth of textbooks is probably the last thing you want to do. Though, on paper, learning is students' No. 1 priority, hefty course-material prices do not exactly encourage running to the campus bookstore.
The U.S. House of Representatives started taking action this summer, in the wake of a 2005 Government Accountability Office report that found that textbook prices almost tripled between 1986 and the end of 2004 — rising by 186 percent — while tuition and fees increased by 240 percent. So, over the next year, the House's Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance will study the rising costs and make recommendations to lawmakers and interested parties on ways to make books more affordable.
"It's an important issue because cost for some students — especially at community colleges — is a huge problem. For many low- or moderate-income students, there's inadequate financial aid," says Nicole Barry, deputy director of the committee.
Several states have also introduced legislation this year to encourage professors to consider cost when deciding on required texts and choose fewer bundled materials, which include extra pieces such as CDs. However, will these measures make a difference in policy -- or will students continue to either pay full price or find books from alternative sources?
Add-ons add up
The investigation will reinforce that it is faculty members who choose which books to use in class, says Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, a national trade organization representing about 300 members [the McGraw-Hill Companies), a major textbook publisher and publisher of BusinessWeek, is a member of the group). "Why would faculty choose large, hard-bound, full-color books with graded online homework and tutorials? Because they believe that will benefit students. It's a classic case of serving a need," says Hildebrand.
Publishing companies determine wholesale prices, college bookstores decide on final retail prices based on wholesale figures, and then faculty members choose materials for individual classes. The average mark-up bookstores place on new books is 33% and on used copies is 50 percent, so that's why most bookstores offer the same prices across the board, says Hildebrand. The more add-ons a book includes -- complicated subject matter, color photos, hard covers, online tests and grading, and teaching packets and so on -- the pricier it is. New editions, which come out about every four years, also add to the cost.
However, the GAO report noted that some book wholesalers and retailers say that packaging the supplements with the books limits students' opportunity to buy cheaper texts. The report also said that industry representatives and public-interest groups felt that publishers were revising textbooks more frequently.
States weigh in
Since the government is not directly involved with setting prices or choosing course materials, it is unclear what the House committee will be able to do about the issue. Barry, of the advisory committee, says members will look at all feasible solutions, which have not yet been identified. She does not know if a cap on prices is possible or whether the committee will review that issue.
Regarding state legislation, most has come in the way of recommendations and not firm changes. This spring, Virginia's governor signed legislation requiring public colleges to create policies that encourage efforts to minimize book costs. "The content of the legislation is great, like California has a list of recommendations to the publishers and faculty to keep costs down. But unfortunately there are no teeth to those recommendations," says Ava Hegedus, national affordable textbooks coordinator for the student Public Interest Research Groups.
Connecticut legislation, however, has been a step in the right direction, says Hegedus. Publishers must now make pricing information and new-edition schedules available for professors at state universities. Many professors do not know -- without conducting research -- the price of textbooks when they choose materials for their classes.
Some professors say they take book price into consideration when deciding on requirements. Sheila M. Puffer, an international business professor at Northeastern University's College of Business Administration, knows about the subject directly. Her son goes to MIT, and at the end of the spring semester, she went to the campus bookstore, tried to sell back five books, and only got money for one, receiving $25 for a $109 psychology book. The leftover books were either outdated editions or not being used the next semester.
When picking texts for her students, Puffer says she's very conscious of price. She doesn't assign optional books and tries to keep each class's requirement to a single book. She also says that sometimes supplemental information and extra online work can give students information overload. "I look for books that have everything I need," she says.
Professors also have the option to create custom books if they do not anticipate using an entire text's content, which happens often. "You can get chapters from other books. You can set your own price. Say you don't want it to be more than $50, you reduce pictures, chapters, and graphic display," says Hildebrand, of the Association of American Publishers.
In the meantime, there are several Web sites to get used books — including half.com and Textbookx.com — but those are of little help if a new edition comes out the semester you're buying. A new site, FreeloadPress.com, offers several free, downloadable B-school books. So far, about 130 courses are signed on from around the country to use texts on the site, and executives say it is set to expand. Authors are commissioned to write books specifically for the site, and a few major publishing companies have now signed on to contribute content.
Students can also come up with creative ways to save cash. Jason Turgeon, a senior at Northeastern who founded the free book site Textbookrevolution.org — which only posts material Turgeon has gotten permission to use or that is free to the public — only spent $35 last semester, as opposed to the $500 he would've spent if he bought new and used books. He borrowed from friends and professors, checked texts out of the library, and downloaded free ones from his Web site. "I'm going to be $85,000 in debt when I graduate. Every dollar counts," he says.
While the House committee decides what it can do to prevent costs from increasing too rapidly, undergraduates can rally their student governments to pressure college officials to create new rules or pressure faculty to purchase cheaper editions. Undergraduates can also find used books -- if there's not a new edition required -- online or in a campus bookstore and try to get free books from alternative sites. Or, if all else fails, students can remember that books are a part of the cost of college and fork over the dough in the name of learning.