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Online college texts are free, but not free from ads

By Elizabeth OwuorCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 12, 2006

When student Shah Nizami walked into the campus bookstore at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, last spring, he was told not to buy a textbook for his business finance class.

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On the first day of the class, Mr. Nizami found out why: His finance professor, Yash Puri, told students they could download their books from the Web free of charge.

"I had already spent over $400 on books – when he said it was free, I was [relieved]," Nizami says, adding that the free textbook saved him about $150.

The catch? The books contain advertisements from a number of companies including FedEx Kinko's and Culver's – a fast-food restaurant in the Midwest.

The ads aim to lighten the financial burden on students created by rising textbook prices, yet some critics worry that they will dilute a book's editorial integrity.

Freeload Press began placing ads in its textbooks shortly after the company was formed two years ago. Based in St. Paul, Minn., Freeload publishes primarily business and finance books that are now used at more than 100 schools across the country. Students who register and complete a survey on the Freeload website can download a free PDF version of their textbook, print a copy, or send away for a bound version for about $30.

Textbooks: a weighty expense

Since textbooks are often the final expense students must absorb before classes begin, some choose to go without. According to a study last year by the National Association of College Stores Foundation, 65 percent of students aren't purchasing all their required course materials. And the key reason, says Tom Doran, cofounder and CEO of Freeload, is money.

"Textbooks cost too much, and students increasingly are showing up to class without probably the most important tool they need to succeed in the course, outside of the lecture," he says in a telephone interview.

College textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past 20 years, according to an August 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office. It cites the addition of supplemental materials like CD-ROMs as a main factor for the increase. (This year, over a dozen state legislatures have rolled out bills aimed at reducing textbook costs.)

The idea of having ads in textbooks has its share of critics, especially since it gives advertisers a prime vehicle to reach a student demographic with an estimated $182 billion in spending power, according to Harris Interactive.

Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, a nonprofit aimed at containing commercial influence, calls the move another form of "ad creep" that filters "into every nook and cranny of our lives and culture." Companies are jockeying to "cultivate brand loyalty among people with a lot of disposable cash and a future of buying to come," he says.

Mr. Ruskin sees the ads as undermining the message that educators hope to convey. "The purpose of education is to, among other things, teach critical reasoning. The purpose of advertising is to subvert critical reasoning to promote the sale of a product."