High textbook prices spark debate as students seek out alternatives

Friday, February 3, 2006

As shopping period ends, Brown students settle into their new schedules, catch up on missed work and line up to pay hundreds of dollars for increasingly expensive textbooks. As publishers, professors and advocacy groups argue over whether pricey new editions and fancy features are necessary, students are turning to a growing number of lower-cost options.

Students at four-year private institutions now spend an average of $850 per academic year on textbooks, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report titled, “College Textbooks: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases.” Brown students interviewed by The Herald said they spend between $500 and $1,000 per year.

Textbook prices have risen at double the rate of inflation for the past 20 years, according to the report. But while this increase seems drastic, it has in fact kept pace with the ever-rising costs of college tuition and fees.

The report and industry critics cite two main reasons for price increases: the bundling of supplementary materials with textbooks and frequent releases of new editions.

Critics of high textbook costs, such as an advocacy group called the Affordable Textbooks Campaign, say pricey supplements and new editions add little educational value, although textbook publishers argue that these features are useful teaching aids.

Finding alternativesAs this debate turns heads in the world of higher education, students and professors are seeking alternatives to traditional bookstore shopping.

The used book market is growing in campus bookstores and on the Internet. The Brown Bookstore sells a particularly large number of used books because, as an independent bookseller, it has a commitment to selling used titles.

Used books constitute 30 percent of Brown sales, the largest percentage in the Ivy League, said Director of Bookstore and Services Larry Carr.

Another alternative to shelling out big bucks for new books is textbook rentals, a service in place at 20 American universities to help cut student costs. According to the Affordable Textbooks Campaign, such rental programs can reduce a student’s textbook spending by $1,600 to $2,000 over the course of four years. But according to Carr, such programs won’t appear at Brown any time soon. The University’s “fast-moving curriculum” would not make textbook rentals worth the investment, he said.

Carr said the Bookstore’s buyback option is tantamount to a rental system because it allows students to sell books back at the end of the semester for 50 percent of the new textbook price.

Publishing companies, for their part, are offering a lower-cost option as well. Students can buy black-and-white, no-frills versions of standard textbooks in order to save money. Thomson Learning, for example, prints an “Advantage” series of 400 to 500 titles that cost 25 to 50 percent less than high-end textbooks, said company spokesman Adam Gaber.

Professors are also chipping in to cut student spending by using no-cost materials. Many professors provide links to course readings on the Internet (for example, Brown’s use of WebCT), or distribute CDs with PDF files of scanned book pages.

In some cases, entire textbooks are available online for free. Northeastern University student Jason Turgeon started a Web site that provides hundreds of links to free online textbooks after an introductory physics course required him to purchase problem sets he never used.

“I’m not a socialist and (I’m not) saying that all books should be free,” Turgeon said. “(The textbook industry) has had sort of a monopoly, and I’m trying to introduce some competition.”

The Affordable Textbooks Campaign is a network of stu-dent-run public interest groups which also challenges textbook publishers’ monopoly by pub-licizing reasons that prices continue to climb along with alternative options to full-price books.

The group claims that bundling supplements such as CD-ROMs into textbook packages increases book prices by 10 percent on average, said Campaign Coordinator Hannah Nguyen. She added that most students and professors do not want these costly “bells and whistles.”

Prices also rise with the release of new editions, which critics claim are published more often than needed. “It’s especially egregious in areas where the subject stays pretty much the same” such as calculus or physics, Nguyen said.

Chapters are re-ordered and CD-ROMs tucked into back pockets, but “little or no additio-nal info” has been added, she said. A campaign report stated that over 500 mathematics professors from 150 universities had called on textbook publisher Thomson Learning to stop print-ing unnecessary new editions of its standard calculus textbook.

Textbook industry represen-tatives, however, say supplements and new editions are part of a changing market that demands up-to-date learning tools.

“(When you buy a textbook) you’re getting an entire teaching and learning system,” Gaber said.

Although Gaber agreed that core knowledge has not changed in fields such as calculus, he said that technology has transformed how it can be taught. He cited one video that Thomson packages with some calculus textbooks that illustrates key concepts. Supplemental CD-ROMs can provide quiz banks, online mentors and homework helpers, he said.

Professors can choose whe-ther or not to order specific supplements that may affect cost, Gaber said. In rare cases, though, supplements must be packaged with the book because of a copyright or partnership agreement.

The debate at BrownBrown professors who spoke with The Herald gave new editions and supplementary materials mixed reviews. Pro-fessor of Engineering Joseph Liu said he assigns new textbook editions because he finds them generally superior to older ones. He said CD-ROMs included with textbooks have been useful to him and his students.

Professor of Chemistry Matt-hew Zimmt, currently working on a textbook himself, said that while revisions to early editions are important, exceeding a third edition is often unnecessary. He said that textbook companies are “constantly selling a new version so that people can pay money for things they don’t need.”

Students interviewed by The Herald echoed this sentiment, saying they were forced to buy supplements they never used.

Chemistry concentrator Alden Voelker ’08 said he never used the CD-ROM that was packaged with his CH 33: “Equilibrium, Rate, and Structure” textbook, though he said his MA 18: “Intermediate Calculus” course did use the textbook’s supplementary CD. Biochemistry concentrator Clem Marshall ’08 said his textbook for BI 28: “Introductory Biochemistry” includes a CD he does not expect to use.

Liberal arts students voiced similar complaints. Education concentrator Jessica Fredston-Hermann ’08, for example, said her Spanish textbook came bundled with a Spanish-English dictionary, rendered useless for her because she already owned one. Another Spanish book she purchased includes a CD-ROM of listening exercises that she does not believe are part of the course.

“One of the best things (students) can do is work with their professors” to find affordable textbooks, Nguyen said.

On the other end of the debate, Gaber maintains that fancier books are the future of the text-book industry and teaching in general. “There are so many other tools and useful ways that professors can teach students better,” he said. “It’s all about choice and value.”

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