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Textbook Transparency and Pricing

June 7, 2013

Students have greater access to textbook pricing information thanks to recent federal requirements, a new study shows. But it's not clear yet what if any effect the changes mandated by the Higher Education Opportunity Act are having on textbook prices, which have continued to rise at an average of 6 percent per year, based on data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The study released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office offers evidence that textbook publishers, campus bookstores and university faculty members -- as required by provisions within the Higher Education Opportunity Act that went into effect in 2010 -- are all making efforts to enhance students’ choice and knowledge of the books they’re buying.

The study acknowledges that students now have lower-cost options such as buying used and digital books or renting. But the price of new, print books often drives the prices of other items, including used textbooks, the study says.

And this shows that “there is still a lot of work to do” when it comes to making textbooks affordable for students, said Nicole Allen, the Student PIRGs Textbook Advocate and director of the Make Textbooks Affordable project. She said the study was unsurprising and “bittersweet.”

The federal provisions were passed in response to the idea that the textbook market functions differently from a regular market, since the consumers (students) buying the products are not the ones choosing them (faculty). One way to combat that is to make students more informed about cost-saving alternatives, the logic went.

The first provision of HEOA that the study addressed was price disclosure. According to the law, publishers are required to disclose prices and revision information when they market books to professors. They also must provide a description of “substantial content revisions” between the current and previous editions, as well as alternative formats that are available.

All eight publishers included in the study “chose to disclose retail prices and format options in publicly accessible areas of their websites,” the study said. But “stakeholders said these practices had a limited effect on faculty decisions.” Faculty said the quality and relevance of the materials -- not prices -- were the key factors in choosing textbooks for their courses. Faculty members did tell GAO they are more conscious about the prices of the books they assign than they were in the past.

The second HEOA provision examined was the unbundling of textbooks. Often textbook publishers “bundle” related material -- such as a textbook, an access code and a study guide -- and sell them together under one price. HEOA requires that publishers make all bundled materials for sale individually. All publishers included in the study made their bundled materials available for individual sale, but the study noted that “buying individual components may not be cheaper for students.” Also, students may have limited options when obtaining unbundled components.

The federal higher education law also asks colleges to provide a list of assigned textbooks for each course, including ISBNs and retail prices. The law offers flexibility in how each college and university discloses its information, but the study found that 81 percent of institutions made textbook information available for the 2012 term, and an "estimated 93 percent of these schools made the information publicly available without the use of a password, allowing both current and prospective students to view it.”

There was a consensus by students and others interviewed by GAO that students benefited from increased transparency and timely textbook information. 

Making pricing information readily available may be an “important step,” Allen said, but it’s only the first one in a battle against rising textbook prices. She suggested that there should be a push for faculty to use Open Educational Resources, which are freely accessible open textbooks for faculty to adopt and students to use.

In a joint statement, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) echoed Allen, saying, “While we are pleased that publishers and schools are complying with federal transparency requirements, more needs to be done to provide more affordable textbook options. As the GAO report suggests, transparency alone isn’t enough." They said Open Educational Resources offer a "promising step forward," and Congress should continue to learn more about the textbook sector.

 

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