College tuition is expensive enough, let alone the textbooks

College students can't really afford $200-plus on a textbook. Why not go textbookless?

Panic time.

Final exams were coming, but I still could not afford the textbook for Botany 100. I was bagging groceries to pay college tuition and thought I could navigate freshman year just by being attentive in class.

With nothing to cram from, I made my way to the library. But finding no botany texts in the stacks, I checked out the autobiography of Gregor Mendel, the “father” of genetics, whose field had been the major emphasis of Dr. Baker, my instructor.

So while my classmates were poring over the graphs and study questions in the textbook, I lay on my bed, reading about Mendel’s childhood illnesses, his interest in plants, and his stream of consciousness musings.

When I finally got to Mendel’s experiments growing green peas, I was pretty into it, having accompanied him on his “journey” since Day 1.

“You received a perfect score on the genetics section,” said Dr. Baker. “That’s never happened.”

I was no science genius. The D earned later in zoology confirmed that fact.

But acing the test made me wonder: Were textbooks necessary? Could students succeed while saving money, using free resources from the library, or from life?

I revisited that question after landing a teaching job at a Chicago public high school. My third year, we had a teachers strike; in my eighth, the city textbook fund went broke, so I was left to improvise for my 128 pupils in freshman English.

For literature and vocabulary, we harvested readings from free trial subscriptions to Scholastic Magazine. For grammar and writing, I composed my own work sheets, drills, and sample essays for distribution.

Initially, it was a ton of work. But there was a side benefit: Students were more attentive to the up-to-date stories and screenplays in the magazine. And they liked my “customized” usage exercises even better: Tyrone (laid, lay) in front of the TV, watching Walter Peyton beat the Washington Redskins.

I reflected on all of this last week, when my college writing students said the bookstore was charging a whopping $72 for our text.

Delia, who is a sophomore, sought to reassure me that English was among the bargains on her book list, which included texts for Psychology 2012, $95; Art 1201, $106.75; and Biology 1005, $200.50.

How can this be, when the bestselling hardcovers average only $25 at or Barnes & Noble?

A US Government Accounting Office report shows that textbook prices rose 40 percent between 2002 and 2007, and 186 percent between 1986 and 2004, so that a college student’s annual book bill averages $900!

Publishers claim sky-high prices are necessary to offset losses from used-book businesses that recirculate titles, killing sales of new books.

So publishing reps compete for their piece of the multibillion-dollar pie, throwing book release parties with refreshments and gifts for faculty, including free examination copies. Additionally, they lure professors to tweak and rewrite new editions each year, to render obsolete the slightly used copies and create new demand.

The cost of college textbooks has been the subject of legislative efforts in more than 30 states recently. Solutions?

A federal law to take effect in July requires advance disclosure of prices for faculty and students, and it will prohibit “bundling” texts with workbooks, CDs, and so on, unless requested. (Six states have already passed similar measures.)

Unfortunately, the professors who haven’t been demanding price information in the first place, are the same who give little thought to assigning a $200 science book instead of a $35 alternative.

But a dramatic federal bill proposed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois would allow licensing of “open college textbooks” on the Internet for free use by everyone.

The trick is getting that one past conservative business interests and corporate publishing lobbyists, in a Senate that’s no longer filibuster-proof.

Concerned faculty, however, needn’t leave students at the mercy of a gridlocked legislature.

I closely reviewed “Elements of Argument,” the $72 volume required for Composition II by our department. The instructional material is little changed from the writing principles I’ve been teaching for two decades with $20 college handbooks. The only difference is in the readings, which comprise essays from periodicals on topics of interest in the past two or three years.

But these are essays my students can read on the college library Internet data bases, which they have already paid for!

So why not toss the textbooks altogether?

After all, they are generally written by professors. And any of us worth our chalk can present skills and concepts directly and more interestingly, while directing students to the latest literature downloadable for no extra charge, at their fingertips.

In disciplines other than my own, whether law, medicine or math, the best and latest literature is also available more readily online, than on Mom’s credit card.

Since the dawn of the Internet age, many institutions have gone “paperless,” to save money, as well as the environment.

Perhaps it’s time universities go “textbookless,” to free our students from the expensive tyranny of Bedford, Pearson, Prentice Hall, and Houghton Mifflin.

David McGrath, professor emeritus, College of DuPage, currently teaches at Edison State College in Fort Myers, and is author of “The Territory.”

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