How to cut cost of college texts

With students paying up to $1,000 yearly, advisory panel urges use of digital market.

Will there be a truce in the battle over college-textbook prices?

Textbooks have become a flash point in the larger frustration over sharply rising college costs. In an attempt to get past finger-pointing, a new report highlights what publishers, policymakers, and faculty are doing, and can do, to give students some relief.

"Turn the Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable" is the culmination of a yearlong study by the federal Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, commissioned by members of Congress on both sides of the aisle. (The full report is available at

Between 1987 and 2004, college-textbook prices have more than doubled; at four-year public colleges, for instance, they rose 109 percent. That significantly outpaced the 65 percent growth in the overall Consumer Price Index, the report notes. But it also puts the prices in a broader context: As a percentage of family income, they've risen only slightly.

Still, with textbooks costing an estimated $700 to $1,000 per year, many see that cost as an obstacle, particularly for low-income students. Books represent a little more than 2 percent of their income. At some community colleges, the bill at the bookstore is almost as high as tuition, the report says, and gaps in financial aid distribution leave some students short of money when it's time to buy course materials.

"I've had to drop classes because I can't afford the book – it's really frustrating," says Amber Vaillancourt, a student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Next semester she'll be chairing the affordable-books campaign for her chapter of MASSPIRG, a student-led research and advocacy group based in Boston. She opted not to buy some of the books for her classes last semester to keep her bill down to $250, but she found it difficult to access a reserve book at the library for an anthropology course because there was only one copy for a class of 300.

Student activists around the country have organized book swaps on campus and online and have lobbied faculty and legislatures about cost-saving measures. They've also protested publishers that bundle textbooks, software, and other materials – sometimes by sending back the extras they find unnecessary.

When books are bundled with digital materials, it's because professors request them, counters Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers in Washington. An economics book might come with a database tool, for instance. "The faculty is being pounded to educate students for the 21st century ... but those tools aren't free."

More than 100 bills have been proposed in 34 states in the past three years to address textbook affordability. Proposals include cutting sales taxes on textbooks, creating incentives to promote book rental programs, increasing grant aid to cover books for low-income students, and requiring publishers and professors to be more transparent about textbook options and costs. Laws have passed in such states as Connecticut, California, and Virginia.

Professors' choices "depend on the quality of what's out there in a particular field.... If they have options that they see as equally good, they're very good about being cost-conscious," says Nicole Byrd, government relations associate for the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) in Washington.

Colleges and publishers have started to use technology to offer cheaper options to students. Electronic books cost about half as much as their printed counterparts, for instance. And OER (open education resources) websites offer free course material.

Many of the fixes currently being tried can be helpful in the short term, but the problem of rising prices will persist unless there's a fundamental shift to "a demand-driven ... student-centric market," the report warns.

To that end, the advisory committee, which makes recommendations to the US Department of Education, proposes the creation of a "national digital marketplace" of instruction materials. Accessible online, it would be an infrastructure where professors could choose both fee-based and free components from various publishers to best suit their classes, students could order printed materials or access digital information through Web portals customized by their colleges, and content providers could more efficiently market their materials.

Persuading stakeholders to make the investment to set up such a system would be a challenge, but initial reactions indicate open-mindedness.

"If a system helps with marketing and improves transparency, that could be helpful," says Mr. Hildebrand, the publishing spokesman. But he questions, "Who will build and pay for such a system?" and "How do you organize that massive database?"

Moving toward electronic access makes sense, says Ms. Byrd of the AAUP, but such a plan requires sensitivity to "guarding intellectual property."

The proposed marketplace strikes student advocates as good for the bottom line. "A faculty member could go in and compare. We think that will create downward price pressure," says Saffron Zomer, program director for MASSPIRG.

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