Students feel a textbook burden

Education costs are being driven up by high prices, frequent edition updates

December 08, 2008|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,stephen.kiehl@baltsun.com

COLLEGE PARK - John Verde, who operates a small chain of college bookstores in Maryland, has so many old editions of textbooks sitting around that he uses them as kindling for his fireplace.

"They have no resale value because no one's using them," said Verde, CEO of BookHolders.com. Publishers put out expensive new editions every couple of years, professors assign them to students, and bookstores are left with textbooks they can't resell. So Verde burns his worthless inventory.

Students now spend nearly $1,000 a year on textbooks - a cost that is consuming an increasing share of their education budget. At the University of Maryland, College Park, textbooks add about 12.5 percent to the $8,000 in-state tuition charge. As the howls from students and parents have intensified, universities and legislators are looking for solutions.

"While we were worried about tuition and fees and being certain that we had affordable access, there is an area of the cost of going to school that has risen dramatically - the cost of textbooks," said William E. Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, which has held tuition steady for the past three years but has not reined in climbing textbook costs.

Kirwan's comments came at a "textbook summit" last month at the College Park campus. He cautioned that the flexibility of faculty members in choosing books cannot be constrained. But he said changes could be made that would bring down the cost for students.

Professors should publish their book list a semester in advance - in the spring for fall courses, for instance - to give students time to comparison shop for the books and campus bookstores time to find used copies of the books, Kirwan said. He also suggested professors commit to using a book for a given time period, such as two years, so students know they will be able to resell the book.

The state Board of Regents is also taking up the issue of textbook costs. The board will work with presidents and provosts to devise short- and long-term solutions, said Regent David Nevins. In the short-term, he says, colleges should publish the ISBN (each book's unique identifying number) for textbooks to make it easy for students to shop online for better prices, and when faculty send their book lists to the campus bookstore, they should automatically get an e-mail giving the prices students will pay.

Many professors don't know the prices students pay for the books they assign, according to professors and administrators. Better communication, such as the return e-mail on book prices, could have a great impact.

"Very few faculty are aware of the impact their actions have on the cost of a textbook," said Kara Turner, assistant dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Morgan State University. "We need to be educated."

Around the country, different states are experimenting with various approaches - such as digital textbooks that students read online or print for a small fee, or having professors in a certain department collaborate to write books that students can read for free. Softcover textbooks could also save money, avoiding expensive hardbacks that become obsolete.

Last month's summit displayed the intensity of emotions that surround the issue of textbook costs. An official with the American Association of Publishers said students might "flunk out" if they are assigned books of lesser price (and, therefore, lower quality). State Sen. Paul G. Pinsky called that notion "pretty abominable," saying students first need to be able to afford their education.

Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, and Sen. Jim Rosapepe, a Democrat representing Prince George's and Anne Arundel counties, plan to introduce textbook legislation in the new General Assembly session starting in January. Rosapepe said the bill would be similar to one that passed the Senate but failed to clear the House in the previous session. That bill required the release of ISBN numbers and for publishers to provide professors with specific information on what has changed in new editions of books.

"A lot of these books are sold, not bought," said Rosapepe, referring to the textbook sales representatives who visit professors every semester to hawk new editions. He said his bill would "put more tools in the hands of professors to make better decisions."

Universities have started taking steps to help students. The University of Maryland, Towson University, Morgan State University and St. Mary's College already publish the ISBN number for their textbooks, and professors at St. Mary's also get the return e-mails on the prices of books they assign.

"One professor, seeing a book was up to $125, took that book off her list," said Ron Stone, the textbook manager at the St. Mary's College bookstore. He said that in his 20 years at the college, textbook prices have quadrupled. He has responded by stocking more used books and encouraging professors to use older editions of books in subjects like chemistry, physics and calculus.

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