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Students May See Some Gains Through New Textbook Rules

With college textbooks costing an estimated average of $900 a year, student and consumer groups say new federal rules taking effect this summer could generate savings for low-income students in the years ahead. 

Among other provisions, the rules would require publishers to provide detailed price information to college faculty before they select books for their classes. They also restrict the practice of “bundling,” or requiring students to buy books together with supplemental materials, and require greater public information such as the publication of textbook prices in student course catalogs.

Part of the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act, the changes took effect July 1. “This change makes sure that all of the information is on the table,” said Nicole Allen, textbook advocate for The Student PIRGs, an organization affiliated with the consumer group U.S. PIRG.

While the new rules cannot directly influence pricing, student and consumer groups say they will give students more information and more time to look around for the best prices. “The most important thing is to increase transparency in textbook pricing,” Allen said. 

Other changes in the rules would:

• Require publishers to provide bookstores with their wholesale prices.

• Require publishers to provide descriptions of changes made in a new addition compared to previous ones.

• Require publishers to offer textbooks and supplemental materials individually  rather than just in so-called “bundles” that may include books, CDs and DVDs. 

“These changes all will be very helpful. Students will have time to shop around for lower-cost alternatives,” Allen said. A representative of college publishers said the industry understood the sentiment behind many of the changes. “We also think it’s important to have transparency,” said Bruce Hildebrand, spokesman for the Association of American Publishers. 

But Hildebrand argued there already is transparency in the industry as new editions of textbooks always describe changes from past editions. He also said that it is not only publishers and their prices that affect whether students believe they are getting a good deal on their materials. 

“The chief complaint of students isn’t textbook prices. It’s their usefulness,” he said. Many complaints come not from the price at purchase but “when students have to buy three or four books and then they don’t really use them.” 

He said new technologies are changing the textbook industry tremendously. As a result, professors and colleges have many new options, including print-on-demand books and customization, through which students may need only to download parts of a textbook that apply to a particular course.

“Students only buy the chapters they need,” he said. Surveys have shown that students still value a printed textbook but often prefer to go online for supplemental resources, Hildebrand noted.

Also, while students previously may just have gone to the campus bookstore, there are online retailers such as Amazon that offer textbooks. Even as the new rules take effect, student and consumer groups want Congress to take more action on the issue.

A bill pending in Congress would provide seed grants to develop more open-source textbooks, or materials with fewer copyright restrictions that could be downloaded at little or no cost via the Internet.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) has introduced legislation to provide these grants. Durbin’s Open College Textbook Act would award one-year grants to colleges and universities, their professors, and book producers to create or update open textbooks, defined in the bill as books in electronic format licensed under an open license.

Introduced as S. 1714, the measure would provide $15 million in the first year and unspecified sums for five additional years. 

According to Durbin, government agencies such as the National Science Foundation already provide grants to professors to improve classroom learning, including creation of textbooks. But while they worked with Congress on the new rules issued July 1, publishers oppose the Durbin bill and government intrusion into the market. 

“We’re not opposed to open source material per se,” Hildebrand said. “We do oppose spending taxpayer money for the government to go into competition with a business sector that provides U.S. jobs and is a major supplier to education across the world.” 

Durbin’s bill is still awaiting Senate action. Groups such as the United States Student Association (USSA) argue that another way to make books more affordable is for Congress to continue increasing the federal Pell Grant, through which low-income students can receive aid not only for tuition but also for materials such as textbooks

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