Textbook prices up, student patience low

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Textbook prices increased an average of 6 percent each year since 1987 – twice the rate of inflation – according to a study released Aug. 16 by the U.S. Governmental Accountability Office.

The study concludes that the most significant factor for the dramatic increases in textbook prices is “bundling,” when a publisher adds CD-ROM software and workbooks to a textbook package.

Textbook prices have nearly tripled from December 1986 to December 2004, according to the report, while tuition and fees have increased by 240 percent. Inflation increased by 72 percent during this time.

The study also found that the average full-time college student in the United States paid $898 for textbooks during the 2003-04 academic year.

“This doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Richard Hooper, a junior economics major, who is still recovering from the shock of paying $420 for a semester’s worth of textbooks. The most expensive of his books came bundled.

“They have been screwing us like this for years,” Hooper said. “When will it ever end?”

Ronald McIntyre, president of the Faculty Senate and a longtime CSUN instructor, has discussed the issue of rising textbook prices with many fellow CSUN instructors.

McIntyre said instructors are aware of rising textbook prices, but he said he feels that there is not much that professors can do about it. More textbooks are only being offered bundled with other items that many teachers do not find necessary, according to McIntyre, and the only power the faculty has over the problem is when they choose to not buy the more expensive books.

“For my own classes, I don’t ask students to buy very many books,” McIntyre said. “I look on amazon.com and other sites, and if there are two options (for selecting a textbook), I will get the cheaper one.”

Michael Neubauer is the coordinator of the developmental math program, and he selects textbooks for thousands of freshmen students who take math courses. He said that every year the publishers bring out new editions that cost more but do not really offer anything to warrant the extra cost.

“I do my best to get the most inexpensive books,” Neubauer said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to get all those extras. What is taught in this class is roughly the same material that has been taught for over a hundred years. Why do we need so many new editions?”

Tom McCarron, executive director of the University Corporation, which partly runs the Matador Bookstore, said he does not know why textbook prices are rising and he declined to speculate on why.

He did say, however, that he believes the only thing that can be done to reduce textbook prices is for instructors to choose books early.

“The only way we can bring the price down is by using our network of used books,” McCarron said. “We try to fulfill all faculty requests for textbooks with used books.”

The average mark-up on wholesale prices at a typical university bookstore is 23 percent, according to the GAO report; for used books the mark-up is around 50 percent.

McCarron said he believes that prices seem to have stabilized in the last year. He said that if you are going to look at the reason for rising prices, you have to start at the publishers.

J. Bruce Hildebrand is the executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers in Washington, D.C.

Hildebrand lobbies Congress on behalf of the textbook industry, trying to convince lawmakers to create laws that are beneficial to the publishers. He said that the textbook industry has been made a scapegoat for rising prices.

Textbook publishers create a wide variety of books in every price range, from inexpensive black and white stripped-down versions, to “Cadillac” books with CD-ROMs and workbooks that are the most popular with college teachers, Hildebrand said.

“The whole choice (in which books are required for classes) is made by the professors,” Hildebrand said. “They choose what they think is best, and what the teachers of this country choose happens to be the most expensive (books).”

He concedes that textbooks are expensive, but claims that with a best-selling textbook only selling 40,000 copies, overhead cost is high, and therefore, the profits small.

Hildebrand claimed that with so many high school students entering college academically unprepared, teachers require the add-ons to help teach students in the new 21st century environment. He said the outcry over rising textbook prices is an annual before-the-school-year tradition and is overdone.

Renee Provencher, a member of the California Public Interest Research Group, a watchdog organization that examines problems confronting university students, said she believes the publishers are the main cause of the rise in textbook prices.

“Publishers are bundling more and more books with unnecessary add-ons,” Provencher said. “New editions every two or three years with no real change and over $100 editions on subjects that haven’t changed in a hundred years. It just drives up costs with no benefit for students.”

Provencher said instructor choices in textbook selection are going down.

She said that to buy textbooks more inexpensively, students should explore online sites to find books cheaply and to buy used books as much as possible. She said she hopes the government will take measures to bring down prices.

Last year the California Assembly passed AB 2447, sponsored by Assembly member Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, in an effort to have Faculty Senates and bookstores work together to help teachers choose more inexpensive textbook options. The law required California State Universities to encourage faculty to give consideration to the least costly practices in assigning textbooks.

“We talked about it in a Faculty Senate meeting in October of (2004),” McIntyre said. “We are aware of our responsibility under the law.”

McCarron came to a meeting of the Faculty Senate in the spring and discussed possible explanations of rising textbook prices.

He explained how market forces and publishers’ rising wholesale prices were affecting costs, McIntyre said. Faculty Senate members told him that they could see no apparent reason for the prices going up, and McCarron could not come up with a reason either, according to McIntyre.

“Some (instructors) pay close attention (to the costs of textbooks, and) some are oblivious,” said McIntyre.

U.S. Rep David Wu, D-Oregon, has proposed an amendment to the proposed Higher Education Act that will be debated in September. The amendment will encourage publishers to “unbundle” their books, selling the books, software and workbooks separately. If enacted, the law would not require publishers to take concrete measures to reduce textbook prices.

Hildebrand said the “hubbub” over textbooks will die down until after students begin buying their books for the spring semester.

“Students have been complaining about textbook prices since your grandmother can remember. This is nothing new,” Hildebrand said.

Robert McDonald can be reached at robert.mcdonald.690@csun.edu.