Congress Questions Sky-High Costs of College Textbooks
By Peggy Orchowski
Why are textbooks costing community college students almost 50 percent of what they pay for tuition each year?
Some members of the U.S. Congress and higher education officials sought to find an answer to that question at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill that explored the reasons behind and potential solutions for the rising costs of college textbooks.
“The effect of the staggering costs of textbooks on our efforts to keep college affordable cannot be ignored,” said Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., on opening a late-July hearing of the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, which falls under the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.
He cited reports showing that in 2002-2003, the average college student at a four-year institution paid nearly $900 a year for textbooks — an increase of 3.4 percent over the last seven years. Community college students paid an average of $807 a year. A new book costs an average of $102.44, while the average cost of a used book is $64.80 — an increase of 33 percent since 1998.
The burden of textbook expenses varies with college costs.
“According to the College Board, the cost of course materials and supplies is about 6 percent of the total cost of attending a four-year public college or university,” said Marc L. Fleischaker, legal counsel for the National Association of College Stores.
But the more than $800 a year community college students are doling out for books is 42 percent of the average annual tuition at a two-year school, which is $1,900, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
“The Government Accountability Office has been asked by Congress to conduct an investigation into the high price of college textbooks,” McKeon said.
According to a study of book costs at California universities and community colleges by the California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), textbook publishers are driving up book costs.
The group’s director, Merriah Fairchild, said their study, “Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks,” found that “textbook publishers often produced new editions with few significant content changes, rendering older, used versions of the book obsolete and unavailable. (The publishers) use gimmicks, bells and whistles such as CD-ROMs and workbooks that 64 percent of faculty surveyed said they use ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ and which artificially inflate the cost of the textbooks.”
But John Isley, the chairman of the Association of American Publishers and the executive vice president of the Pearson Higher Education and Professional Publishing company, disagreed.
“In almost all cases, the independent decision-maker in selecting instructional material for a specific course is the individual professor or a committee of instructors,” he said. “College professors and instructors are in most cases the textbook authors as well.” As for the bells and whistles, “generally print or media supplements are the result of the instructor’s specific selection,” Isley said. “Typically they are bundled with the book at a discount or offered separately. Often books are offered in various editions of decreasing costs from hardback to online; students can choose which to buy. New editions are typically published every three years to update content and improve instruction; some may sell only 1,000 copies, yet production costs — especially for paper and marketing — are increasing.”
An unnamed math professor from Oregon’s Lane Community College who was quoted in the CALPIRG report said the climbing costs of textbooks are the result of misguided priorities.
“Textbooks have become ridiculously expensive because the people who choose the books (faculty) are not the ones who pay for them (students). Publishers spend a lot of money trying to get me to choose their books,” he said.
McKeon said he wondered if the system wasn’t saddled with a conflict of interests.
“If professors write the textbooks, determine which ones are to be purchased for their classes and have a captured audience to buy them — isn’t that a problem?” he asked.
But panel witnesses assured him that institutions rely on rules and a peer selection process to regulate the system.
“Their judgments are based on a variety of factors, but it is clear that price and value offered by the materials are increasingly an important consideration,” Isley said. The panelists agreed that there is little profitability or prestige in writing textbooks. McKeon was surprised to learn that college bookstores maintained a typical profit margin of only 20 to 25 percent.
“As a former retailer, I could not stay in business with such a margin; how can a college bookstore?” he asked.
“Because they are nonprofit,” said Fleischaker of the National Association of College Stores. “The average markup for all textbooks has remained approximately 22 percent for many years. It would be extremely difficult to conclude that the margins earned by college stores are the primary causative factor in the escalating price of textbooks,” he said.
While the panel didn’t reach a consensus as to what the government should do about textbook costs, Virgil Monroe, the manager of Textbook Services at the University of Wisconsin, River Falls, offered a potential solution — a textbook rental service.
“Students pay a $59 rental fee per semester to check out all the texts they need — an average of seven books per student,” he said. “At the end of the semester, students can return the books undamaged with no extra charge, or they can purchase them or any other book at a discount of 20 to 40 percent off. Such a system is expensive to establish, but once it is in place, it is self-supporting.”
As a result of escalating costs, students and teachers are getting information through other means, according to the panelists, including: books on CDs; printable electronic books; resource material picked by professors that are online or in bound “class material” books; Web books available for a small fee; and clipped notes from all faculty lectures, required readings and test samples.
Anna Lafferty, a professor of graphics and visual education at California’s Santa Barbara Community College, said students are increasingly turning to these alternatives.
“Increasingly, because of duplication and digital delivery technology, community college students can get through whole semesters without buying a single book,” she said. “But then, of course, they often feel they have to buy their own computer — which costs more than the books.”
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