Textbook prices on the rise

Students use various tactics to limit costs

Friday, October 6, 2006

After shelling out $157, it’s hard to forget “Mechanics of Materials,” the assigned textbook for EN 31: “Mechanics of Solids and Structures.” At $130, “Chemical Principles,” for CH 33: “Equilibrium, Rate and Structure,” is a similarly memorable purchase.Though an average student’s annual expenditures on textbooks already increase by $6 each year, Bruce Hildebrand of the Association of American Publishers said these prices are only set to rise further.Textbook prices are determined by publishers, which take into account factors ranging from authors’ royalty payments to the type of paper on which a book is printed. Production costs and bookstore markups also affect prices, according to Edward Weise, manager of the Brown Bookstore’s textbook department.”Mainly the big science textbooks are heaviest in terms of price,” Weise said. He noted that inflation also contributes to rising prices.Learning aids – also known as supplements – that are packaged with textbooks are often cited as an additional reason for rising costs.”Real cost gets amplified if you go for all the supplements,” said Professor of Chemistry Jimmie Doll, who is teaching a section of CH 33 this semester.Yet, according to some students, such increases might be worth it. A 2005 survey conducted by the campus market research department of the National Association of College Stores indicated that 59 percent of participating students view course materials as more helpful when they come with these additional aids.”I think these things can be useful,” Doll said, but he added that students “tend to get overwhelmed” by supplemental offerings.Various reports offer different takes on the extent to which rising textbook prices pose a problem for students.A July 2005 study by the Government Accountability Office, an agency that oversees federal government expenditures, showed that “textbook prices nearly tripled between December 1986 to December 2004,” according to the office’s Web site.But the AAP’s Web site on college textbooks reports that though prices are going up, the average college student spends only $650 per year on books. “Textbooks make up less than 5 percent of all direct higher education expenses,” according to the Web site.”What is being left out of the discussion is value,” Hildebrand, the AAP’s executive director for higher education, said. “Today’s textbook is not a textbook of 20 years ago,” he continued, saying that the added features in today’s textbooks warrant higher prices.”The role of the publisher has changed dramatically,” he said. “(Publishers are) taking on roles that used to be the purview of the post-secondary institution.”For her part, Kate Eshbaugh ’09 said she believes higher book prices reflect a higher quality product. “I think it’s money well spent,” she said. “I feel way worse about spending money on other stuff.”Prices are not only a concern of students. Doll said he believes cost affects professors’ decisions when selecting required books.”We try not to come up with a long list (of textbooks),” Doll said.Students employ an array of tactics to lessen textbook costs. Used books account for 30 to 35 percent of the bookstore’s textbook sales, according to Weise, who said this figure is much higher than at the University’s peer institutions.Ethan Risom ’10 said the convenience of this option appeals to him.”I’d rather buy used books,” he said. “It’s easier to buy used books at the bookstore” than online, he added.Claudia Schwartz ’09 said she has turned to sharing textbooks in an effort to cope with high prices. “For my most expensive textbooks I was able to borrow from across the hall,” Schwartz said.Noah Giansiracusa GS uses a different tactic.”I think Amazon – the used marketplace – that’s my main trick,” Giansiracusa said, referring to “Amazon Marketplace,” the used books section of the popular online shopping site Amazon.com. Weise reported that his department may be feeling the effects of the Internet, estimating that this year’s sales for the month of September are probably down partly as a result of students shopping online.But not everyone is convinced that the Internet is a good alternative.”Buying online takes a long time,” said Jen Nykiel ’10. “You’re not sure about the conditions of the books you’re buying.”Eshbaugh bought books online during her first year “because it was cheaper,” but she was somewhat disappointed with the service she received.”One of them came in late,” she said. “It was a big hassle.”