Textbooks, Barriers and Aid Forms

September 20, 2006

The debate over pricey textbooks and the practice of “bundling” supplemental materials has raged on in publishing houses, faculty lounges and dorm rooms across the country. The topic has piqued the interest of a few lawmakers. And the latest forum for discussion was Tuesday at a public hearing held by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, a nonpartisan federal panel that advises Congress on issues of access to higher education.

Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), a member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, and the committee's chairman, Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon (R-Calif.), have asked the advisory committee to conduct a one-year study -- to be completed in May -- on how to make textbooks more affordable for students. Wu also requested that the Government Accountability Office complete its own study, which found that textbook prices have risen at twice the rate of inflation over the past two decades -- though they didn’t outpace the rising cost of tuition.

“It’s a classic broken market,” Wu said. “The professor is making the decision, the publishers and bookstores are setting the prices and the student has no choice in the product.”

Wu said the House education committee receives more mail from constituents about textbook prices than about any other issue. While he doesn’t advocate government regulation in the textbook market, Wu said something needs to be done. One option, he said, is to encourage professors to distribute their syllabuses well before classes begin so that students have more chances to search the open market. Presenting faculty with a price list of the textbooks from which they are choosing would also be beneficial, Wu said.

A report put out last week by the American Association of Publishers showed that by a 17 to 1 ratio, professors weigh the academic merits of a textbook more strongly than they do its price. Wu said he understands that content is most important to faculty. “We certainly don’t want to infringe on academic freedom, but I’m not going to let go on this issue, because it affects students,” he said.

James V. Koch, a professor of economics and former president of Old Dominion University whose report on textbook costs serves as a backdrop for the panel’s discussion and eventual report, said he advocates state and federal incentives being offered to institutions if they can find a way to lower the price of titles in their bookstores or provide more options to students. Koch said offering textbook rental programs, providing students with links to e-stores that sell copies of textbooks and encouraging professors to opt for "unbundled" books are all viable options. He also said some states have effectively created tax exemptions for higher education textbooks.

Koch proposed -- and Luke Swarthout, higher education associate for the State Public Interest Research Groups, seconded -- the idea of running pilot programs in certain states to see which cost-saving endeavors prove most effective. Swarthout said some of the programs that have worked at the state level are a textbook rental program at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, a print-on-demand model that Rice University and a nonprofit organization have co-organized and a California State University faculty senate resolution to adopt purchasing guidelines for its faculty.

Patricia S. Schroeder, president and chief executive of the Association of American Publishers, said panelists need to hear from more faculty to put the issue in perspective, and that it's important to keep in mind what goes into the cost of textbooks. 

“We are very concerned about this pricing issue,” Schroeder said. “But we are often left out of the discussion and become a convenient scapegoat. Sometimes I feel like we are treating textbooks like they are paper clips. They are the second most important component of education,” she said, adding that publishers, bookstores and wholesalers all have a part in setting prices.  

PIRG and other consumer groups have a waged a steady campaign against the rising cost of textbooks. The publishers' group and PIRG have opposed each other on numerous occasions, with the publishers' association recently calling out PIRG for presenting misleading data.

Schroeder said groups should be looking at the net cost of a book -- its purchase price minus what students make back for selling it -- when determining overall cost. She said books come with supplemental materials because professors these days often need additional tools to explain the material --  their class sizes are bigger and students, as a whole, enter college less prepared than in past generations. “It’s 10 times more challenging with a complex student body,” she said.

Schroeder is an advocate of custom publishing, where professors assemble reading assignments into a packet so that students aren't buying whole books when only a chapter is used. Posting books online is another possibility, she said. But Koch, the economics professor, said students have voted against e-books with their feet, instead choosing to purchase the physical alternatives because they can sell them back to bookstores. He added that professors and their institutions can be unwilling to change their practices if it means diminishing their profits.

Richard Hershman, director of government relations for the National Association of College Stores, said the idea that college bookstores make a tremendous profit off the retail price of books is misguided. He said true information is still missing on how much the average college student pays per year for books. “Until we have that figure, there’s not a broadly effective benchmark.”

At the hearing, the advisory committee also discussed a report it issued last week on access to higher education. According to “Mortgaging Our Future: How Financial Barriers to College Undercut America’s Global Competitiveness,” between 800,000 and 1.6 million low- and moderate-income high school students who were both academically qualified for and intent on attending a four-year college did not go on to earn a bachelor’s degree in the 1990s because of what they characterized as insufficient financial aid. This decade, the panel found that another 1.4 million to 2.4 million students who fit the same qualifications face the same fate. (The report notes that these figures are "extremely conservative.")

The report follows two previous studies by the committee that focused on the importance of financial aid. On Tuesday, speaker after speaker spoke about the need to move away from merit-based aid and toward need-based aid. Some also recommended reducing the financial barriers to transfer from two- to four-year colleges.

David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said programs that help low-income students get into college are working but being underfunded. (He called the underfunding of Pell Grants “indefensible.”)

Sarita E. Brown, president of Excelencia in Education, said the situation is particularly dire for black and Hispanic doctoral students who are more reliant on aid than anyone else in higher education.

William E. (Brit) Kirwin, chancellor of the University System of Maryland, said his state is shifting its priorities from merit-based to need-based aid. Recent surveys showed that students from lowest-income families the system's colleges with 25 percent more debt than did students from families with "average" incomes. The goal is to have them leave with 25 percent less debt than their counterparts by 2009, Kirwin said.

Also at the hearing, financial aid experts told panelists that current financial aid forms need updating -- and probably need to be simplified. The panel is scheduled to issue a report on the feasibility of radically simplifying the Expected Family Contribution, a factor that helps determine how much financial aid is given to a student. (There is no deadline set for that report.) Panelists will receive 300,000 FAFSA forms from the 2003-4 year to help them with their research.

Joe Paul Case, director of financial aid at Amherst College, said financial aid forms haven't taken into account some of the changes in higher education -- such as students enrolling later in life.

Sandy Baum, a professor of economics at Skidmore College and a senior policy analyst for the College Board, said the focus has to be on students. She said the complexity of forms like the FAFSA often discourages students from applying for aid. She said a look-up table that allows students to match family income with the amount of aid to expect would be helpful.

Baum said that before the committee makes its recommendations to the Education Department, it should look at whether simplifying forms leads to more or less accuracy in predicting how much a student will receive in financial aid. For instance, she said, an unintended consequence of shortening the forms could be students with vastly different financial situations being grouped into one category -- which could give some an unrealistic idea about how much aid they will receive.

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