Pricey texts strain student budgets

From California to New York, consumer advocates are sounding the alarm about skyrocketing textbook prices, exposing the sticker shock that is rattling 21st-century college students.

Textbooks routinely cost $100 or more and often come bundled with rarely used workbooks, study guides, and CD-ROMs. New editions come out on a regular basis, preventing students from buying used textbooks.

All together, prices have gone up an estimated 41 percent since 1998, and they now take as much as $900 out of the pockets of typical college students each year, depending on whose figures you believe.

Cash-strapped students are "getting slapped with shockingly high costs," says US Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York in a report issued by his staff last fall. It's all a case of "Rip-Off 101," according to Calpirg, an influential California consumer organization that is demanding changes in the textbook industry.

Armed with the support of students and professors, a California legislator is pushing a proposed law that would encourage textbook publishers to justify new editions and provide unbundled materials. Critics also want publishers to bring American prices in line with those of other countries. (Calpirg found new copies of a $120 calculus book on sale in Britain for less than $60.)

Textbook publishers, put on the defensive, say they don't deserve the blame. In their view, they're simply meeting the needs of students who deserve the most up-to-date information. And producing a textbook can cost more than $1 million, says Judith Platt, spokeswoman for the Association of American Publishers. "It is extraordinarily labor-intensive and intellectual resource-intensive."

Adam Gaber, spokesman for the largest textbook publisher, Thomson Higher Education, adds that the industry is only responding to the professors who choose their class materials. "If there wasn't market demand for what we provide, we wouldn't provide it," says Mr. Gaber. "It's that simple."

These arguments fail to sway several students at the University of California at San Diego who helped Calpirg complete its report, released in February. The report claims that publishers force professors to order unnecessary new textbooks. Each student tells of wildly expensive textbooks and "bad bundles" of useless supplemental materials.

"I'm a computer-science major and I've never touched any of the CD-ROMs or the multimedia materials offered," says junior Lindsey DeFalvo, a Colorado native. "I have a grade-point average of 3.75, so it certainly hasn't affected my grades."

The UCSD bookstore says it urges professors to allow it to "unbundle" textbooks and supporting materials so they can be sold separately. But sometimes the professors decline, leaving students with little choice but to lug home a big, expensive package. A two-volume Thomson physics book, for example, bundled with a pocket guide, three CD-ROMs, and two workbooks, bears a list price of $377.90. While some bookstores discount it, the package can still cost hundreds of dollars.

Publishers say the bundles are good deals, and they point out that students can often find the individual textbooks on the huge used-book market. And what of the bells and whistles like computer discs and full-color glossy pages? "What we're seeing today is an ever-increasing [number] of tech-savvy students demanding more dynamic, visual learning tools. We're also seeing the majority of instructors ask for many ... teaching tools including four-color print, electronic, and Web-based materials," Gaber says.

Despite the extra expenses, publishers say textbook prices are getting a bad rap. While both the Schumer and Calpirg studies estimate the average cost of textbooks at around $900 annually, Gaber says another analysis put the number at $642. He also says the Calpirg study is flawed, something Calpirg denies.

The top textbook publisher and Calpirg are not on the best of terms. In its February report, Calpirg targeted a Thomson math textbook called "Calculus - Early Transcendentals." A new edition of the textbook came out last year, four years after the previous edition, and sells for about $120.

The publisher says the textbook features hundreds of revisions based on changing approaches to education. Consumer advocates aren't impressed, pointing out that the used calculus textbooks are now useless.

"Many math faculty have talked about how calculus hasn't changed in 300 years since Newton," says Merriah Fairchild, author of the Calpirg study. "It's absurd that new editions are coming out every couple of years with rearranged page numbers."

From a student's point of view, "[The proposed law] is not going to drive the textbook industry completely out of business, but it will make it a lot fairer for students," says Ms. DeFalvo.

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