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GAO Report: Textbook Costs Rising Faster Than Tuition

By Charles Pekow

Tuition isn’t the only skyrocketing cost for students. The cost of textbooks has been accelerating much faster than the rate of inflation in the last 20 years –— even more than the cost of tuition.

Textbook costs have risen an average of 6 percent a year since 1986, nearly tripling, while tuition and fees increased 240 percent over the period and overall inflation totaled 72 percent, according to “Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases,” a recent report from the Government Accountability Office.

GAO attributes a large share of textbook price increases to the costs of auxiliary products accompanying them such as CD-ROMs. The new and used textbook market accounted for more than $6 billion in the United States last year, according to the National Association of College Stores.
The costs of textbooks and supplies hit students at public two-year schools hardest proportionally, since they are more likely to be low-income and attend schools with the lowest tuition. During the last academic year, full-time public community college students spent an average of $886 on supplies, about 72 percent of the cost of attendance.

Colleges may turn to adjunct faculty to save money — but doing so increases costs in another way. GAO reported that “publishers we spoke with cited increases in part-time faculty who need additional teaching support as a key factor that has increased demand for instructional supplements.”

Publishers are also revising texts and related materials more frequently than they used to, so students can’t buy used editions to save money or sell them to recoup some of their costs. Revision cycles have decreased from an average of four to five years to three to four years over the last two decades.

Publishers also sometimes sell the same books overseas for less money, depending on market competitiveness in other lands. Publishers often restrict the number of texts that can be reimported into the United States so students can’t order more cheaply from abroad.

After the report’s release, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., introduced legislation referred to the Finance Committee that would permanently extend the college tuition tax deduction and extend it to the cost of textbooks.

Meanwhile, one publisher has announced it has come up with at least a partial solution to the high cost of texts. Kinetic Books Company of Seattle says it is providing “some relief for those struggling to balance quality education with insane textbook prices,” at least for physics classes. Kinetic announced what it calls “a comprehensive digital physics textbook that costs one-third the price of traditional print textbooks, and a suite of virtual labs that allow for more student involvement and experimentation.”

The digital text offsets high printing costs for its series of physics texts, the company says.

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