Students skimping on books

Collegians complain of costs as they copy, borrow, buy used

November 08, 2006|By Stuart Silverstein | Stuart Silverstein,LOS ANGELES TIMES

LOS ANGELES -- College student Rob Christensen has tried nearly every trick in the book to save money on the books.

Last year, Christensen said, he took out a text from his university library and kept it all semester. It dawned on him that the fines (which turned out to be $8) would be less than the price (around $40).

Christensen also has borrowed volumes from friends, split book costs with classmates and occasionally skipped buying expensive texts, hoping to get by without doing all the reading. He often shops for discounts online, too, sometimes snaring older editions or versions that aren't packaged with software or study guides that raise the cost.

"It's a tough fight to get textbooks for an affordable price," said Christensen, a Humboldt State University senior who hopes to become a high school history teacher.

The era of heading to the college bookstore and compliantly buying everything that a professor deems required reading - to the extent that those days really existed - is receding into the pages of history. The ever-escalating cost of higher education, and the ease of online shopping, have spurred students to seek money-saving alternatives.

Three years ago, 43 percent of the students surveyed by the National Association of College Stores indicated that they "always purchase required textbooks." Last fall the figure sank to 35 percent.

Even though not buying a book might hurt their grades, "some just roll the dice and hope," said Albert N. Greco, a Fordham University business professor who studies the college textbook business.

UCLA economics professor Lee Ohanian recalls that when he started teaching in 1992, "there was never any question" about purchasing texts. "Now, I receive literally dozens of questions about whether the book is `really needed.'"

Still, a College Board report released last month estimated that students at public four-year colleges are spending $942 on books and supplies this school year. Another analysis found that hardcover college textbooks are selling, new, for an average of about $120.

Finding ways to cope is particularly crucial at community colleges.

Sandra Escobedo, 19, who studies nursing at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, Calif., receives $250 a semester for books under the program. But she also uses other tactics to save money.

This semester Escobedo dropped a psychology course because she already had too many expensive textbooks to buy and couldn't afford another $100 tome. For a political science class last spring, she bought just one of the five books assigned.

Even that text, she said, was a waste of money. "I never opened the book, and I passed that class," said Escobedo, who relied on the notes she took in lectures.

Some students fire up the photocopy machine. Last fall's National Assocation of College Stores survey found that 14 percent of students polled admitted that they sometimes photocopy a book or other copyrighted materials. Another technique: Order from overseas Web sites to buy cheaper foreign versions of books.

The trends frustrate college bookstore operators vying for the estimated $7 billion a year that students spend on new and used texts. Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the college store association, noted that students increasingly balk at buying textbooks even as they gobble up iPods and cell phones.

"There's definitely a value shift," she said.

Textbook prices have troubled state and federal lawmakers, as well as student activists. Members of the House Education and Workforce Committee called in June for a one-year study that, among other things, will recommend ways to ease the burden of paying for texts.

Amid that pressure, textbook publishers offer such reduced-price options as black-and-white texts and electronic books that can be read online. With e-books, students lose their access to the material at the end of the term, but typically plunk down 50 percent less than for hardcover.

The Association of American Publishers, which represents the nation's college textbook industry, disputes the notion that book costs are too high. It points to research showing typical students at four-year colleges paid $644 for textbooks last year, far less than the College Board estimates and only about one-third of what students spent on entertainment.

"The real outrage should be directed at the suggestion that textbooks are a legitimate place to scrimp," wrote Patricia Schroeder, a former Colorado congresswoman who is the association's president, in a recent commentary.

In addition, the association says publishers revise texts about every four years, and often include CDs and workbooks to update content and take advantage of new educational technologies - not to boost profits.

But Humboldt State's Christensen, a 24-year-old from Orange County, Calif., doesn't buy the industry's arguments. Christensen, who relies on a scholarship, grants, loans and a 20-hour-a- week job to pay for his education, has honed his skills at saving money. This term he bought a used paperback from another student for $5 instead of getting it new for $22.

Sometimes Christensen will buy books at the university bookstore, only to return them if he spots cheaper copies online.

Stuart Silverstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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