States, student leaders struggle to bring college textbook prices under control


Staff And Wire Reports

Winona (Minn.) State University senior Rick Howden, a business administration major, figures he knows a bad deal when he sees it. A $4,500 tab for his college textbooks by the time he graduates? Bad deal.

That includes a $142 business text he had to buy that he has barely opened.

“It ends up sitting on the floor next to my desk,” Howden said. “It’s hard for me to justify.”

Student leaders at SDSU and lawmakers around the country share Howden’s concern about the heavy expense of college textbooks. Some universities’ students have explored the idea of school-run book-rental services as a cheaper alternative.

The incoming SDSU Students’ Association leadership is looking at a book-rental pilot program – to begin with books for some core classes.

“Our vision is that you’d be able to check the book out for the semester (for a price), use it and then return it at the end of the year,” said incoming SA President Alex Brown in a Feb. 13 interview.

In Minnesota, legislators are considering more tightly regulating the textbook publishing industry and requiring professors to be more cost-conscious in choosing course materials. At least a dozen other statehouses, from California to Connecticut, are taking up the issue.

“This is the hidden cost to higher education,” said Democratic Rep. Frank Moe, the Minnesota’s bill sponsor, who also teaches at Bemidji State University. “Reasonable profit makes sense. But the margins they are making on these textbooks is just absurd.”

Publishers have argued that such proposals interfere with their constitutional rights, threaten the academic freedom of faculty members and ignore the economics of textbook publishing. Textbooks are costly, in part, because relatively few copies are sold, they say.

The textbook industry pulls in more than $6.5 billion a year at college bookstores, and college books have tripled in price since 1986. The industry estimates four-year college students spend $644 annually on books; a 2005 government report put the figure at about $900 per year, but that figure includes supplies, too.

At one legislative hearing in Minnesota, student leaders displayed a shrink-wrapped bundle of materials for a single Spanish course. The tab: $193.

The Minnesota bill would require that bundled material also be available as individual pieces; that publishers disclose planned revisions; and that schools give students itemized cost information before they register for a class.

Lawmakers in Florida, Indiana and Nebraska are considering doing away with sales taxes on textbooks, something 18 states have done.

Bruce Hildebrand, an official with the Association of American Publishers, said the most successful textbooks are lucky to reach 40,000 copies in sales, while mass-market best-sellers can sell millions of copies before they even hit paperback.

Then, after a textbook’s debut year, students can pick them up on the resale market. That makes it hard for publishers to recapture their investment.

The publishing industry estimates that the average textbook edition has a four-year lifespan and a price tag of $52.

Hildebrand was in Arkansas this week fighting a bevy of textbook bills after hitting Illinois and Minnesota earlier this year. He disputed allegations that the nation’s 4,500 textbook publishers are hiding costs, passing cosmetic changes off as new editions or packaging books with extra materials for the sake of making money.

He said publishers have, in fact, responded to the outcry over cost.

“The industry has now dramatically increased the number of low-cost, black-and-white, no-frills editions – massively,” Hildebrand said. “The issue is, are the decisions going to be made by the faculty about what is the best learning tool for that student in that classroom?”

Danny Katz, a campus organizer with the California Public Research Interest Group, said publishers are overdoing it.

“Certainly there are some subjects with a legitimate need for a new textbook every couple of years because the content changes so rapidly,” Katz said. But “calculus hasn’t changed in 300 years, so there’s no need for a new edition of a textbook every couple of years.”

In 2004, Katz’s group successfully pushed for a California law urging publishers to be more transparent about their pricing and estimate how long an edition will be produced. Faculty members were encouraged to pursue cheaper book options.

The law didn’t make anything mandatory, making it hard to tell if it affected prices. California legislators are being asked this year to approve more rigid standards.

Connecticut lawmakers adopted a publisher transparency law last year. But legislators say it is unclear whether it has helped students save money.