College Textbook Prices Focus of Congressional
Advisory Committee Hearing
GAO report finds book prices have tripled over past 20 years.
By Charles Dervarics
With many low-income students already struggling to pay for higher education, a federal advisory committee has opened an investigation into the rising costs of college textbooks and its effect on college affordability.
In mid-December, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance conducted its first regional hearing on the subject, which followed a report showing that book prices have nearly tripled in the past 20 years. That report, from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, also says textbooks are a significant cost for all students, particularly those attending lower-cost institutions. At community colleges, textbook costs represent about 72 percent of overall tuition and fees.
“I have received more communication in my office on this problem than any other education topic,” says U.S. Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., part of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who asked for the investigation. Coupled with stagnant federal financial aid, this trend threatens to deny students access to college, he says.
Overall, textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of general inflation since 1986, according to GAO.
“Every year that the cost of textbooks doubles compared to the overall average of prices is another year students experience an even greater barrier to a college degree,” says Wu.
While price increases affect all students, many acknowledge it is low-income students who face the greatest challenges. “These are the kids hardest hit by high prices,” says Erin Renner, a spokeswoman for the advisory committee.
The committee held a hearing Dec. 18 in Chicago to gather input from publishers, students and other groups. Additional hearings are likely by spring in California and Oregon, says Renner.
The advisory committee is a permanent government agency created by Congress to provide advice on financial aid issues. It frequently focuses on issues affecting lower-income students, including access to traditional financial aid. The panel must provide a report to Congress by May 2007.
In its report, “College Textbooks: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases,” GAO found textbook prices represented a significant cost compared with other expenses. Textbooks account for nearly three-fourths of community college costs and represent about 26 percent of tuition and fees at public four-year colleges and universities, the agency says.
The GAO report blamed the increases in part on more frequent textbook revisions and increased production costs. Other factors include the growing use of supplemental materials, such as study guides and CD-ROMs, says Richard Hershman, government relations director for the National Association of College Stores.
Most college bookstores offer used book programs or “buy-back” programs, so students can sell their books after they finish their courses. Book rental programs also are an option if professors agree to use the same book for at least three semesters, says Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for NACS.
GAO has placed the cost of textbooks at about $900 per student, while the publishing industry claims a figure of $650.
The committee’s December hearing included testimony from Tom Doran, a former publishing executive and co-founder of Freeload Press, which provides free electronic textbooks to students. To cover the cost of production, Freeload Press sells display advertisements — called “study break ads” — that appear at regular intervals as students read through their e-books.
So far, participating professors are pleased with the program, he says. After offering free e-books for only four courses in 2006, the company plans to offer 30 course textbooks next year in areas from English composition to accounting and economics. Most are for introductory courses.
“It’s an alternative publishing model,” he says. Students generally may see two to three ads when reading a 30-page chapter.
About 18 states now exempt textbooks from sales taxes as one way to hold down costs, Hershman says, and more states will likely propose such a policy as state Legislatures reconvene. Congress also is looking at other ways to reduce the burden of textbook costs. Several recently introduced bills would make textbooks an allowable expense under the HOPE Scholarship, which provides financial aid to college freshmen and sophomores who maintain a high GPA.
“The inclusion of textbooks as a tax deductible expense will go a long way toward increasing the affordability and accessibility of course materials for all students,” Hershman says.
Textbooks already are an allowable expense under 529 Savings Plans, which many parents use to save for college. Federal Pell Grants also can be used to defer textbook costs but only after deducting for tuition and fees, he says.
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