Proposing remedies for painful cost of textbooks

Personal Finance

January 21, 2007|By Eileen Ambrose | Eileen Ambrose,Sun Columnist

Colleges and state legislatures across the country have been grappling with a problem that's not going away: the soaring price of textbooks.

Last year, 21 states, including Maryland, considered legislation or policies to rein in book costs, according to the National Association of College Stores. And at least in Maryland, the issue will be coming up again this year.

Two years ago, the Maryland legislature asked the university system to come up with a consortium through which public institutions, on a voluntary basis, could use their buying power to get lower prices on books. But the group working on the issue concluded that a consortium would be costly and duplicate what's already available, says Jim Salt, an assistant vice chancellor for the university system.

The group, made up of representatives for students, publishers, booksellers, faculty and others, will be proposing alternatives to legislators and the University System of Maryland Board of Regents.

"There is no silver bullet," Salt says. "It's going to take several initiatives working together to have an impact on the cost of books."

Among the proposals:

Eliminate the 5 percent sales tax on textbooks.

Obtain licensing rights that would allow school libraries to reprint certain chapters of books that students will be able to buy instead of the entire book.

This is already done on a smaller scale, Salt says.

Work with publishers to review cases where textbooks can be sold separately from supplemental materials.

Publishers sometimes bundle textbooks with instructional aids, such as CD-ROMs, but some students don't use the extra materials, Salt says. And bundling books with supplements that can only be used once could make it impossible to resell those materials later, experts say.

Encourage faculty to look critically at whether new editions are necessary, and to make their book lists for the coming semester available to students and bookstores early.

Book lists coming in late dampen the used-book market. A bookstore is reluctant to buy back books from students if it doesn't know whether the texts are going to be used again, experts say. And if students aren't able to sell their books, there are fewer used books on the shelves.

University of Maryland, College Park already does this. Students there saved about $1 million in the past academic year after the school urged teachers to get book lists in on time, Provost Bill Destler says.

Students that year received nearly $964,000 for their used books, up $484,000 from the year before, Destler says. On top of that, students saved $583,000 by buying the used books.

It's easy to see why textbooks are such a hot issue.

Prices nearly tripled from 1986 to 2004, far outpacing inflation, a Government Accountability Office study found.

The average student at a four-year public college in the 2003-2004 school year spent $898 on books and supplies, or about a quarter of the cost of tuition and fees.

Students at lower-priced community colleges spent about the same, but the tab accounted for 72 percent of tuition and fees.

And that was three years ago.

Still, for families focused on tuition, textbook prices often come as a shock. "It's one of the hidden costs of attending college," Destler says.

There's plenty of finger-pointing as to the cause of rising prices.

The GAO concluded that prices largely are going up because publishers are spending more to develop supplements that are bundled with textbooks.

Students and some consumer advocates blame publishers that churn out new editions that have few revisions but make a prior edition obsolete. The GAO reported that texts are revised every three to four years, a year quicker than a decade or so ago.

Bruce Hildebrand, an executive director with the Association of American Publishers, says revisions aren't minor. He adds that publishers are responding to a demand by faculty, who want the latest material and tech-based instructional aids for students.

"It's what they want and what they believe is best for their students," Hildebrand says.

That may be little consolation to students who are digging deeper into their pockets to pay for books.

Darius Gaymon figures he spends "an easy $800" on textbooks each semester at the University of Maryland.

The senior has a double major - cellular biology/molecular genetics and secondary education - so he spends more than the average student. Some of his books cost more than $200 apiece, he says.

"I hope the price goes down pretty soon," says the 21-year-old, who plans to pursue a doctorate. "I have six more years of buying textbooks."

To keep costs down, students often buy and sell books online at one of many retailers, such as Amazon.com or Half.com, which is owned by online auctioneer eBay Inc.

Gaymon says he saves money at Amazon.com, although buying used books online has its drawbacks. "You have to worry about torn-out pages," he says. "Some people highlight everything they read. You're reading these big fluorescent yellow and pink pages."

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