Next Chapter on Textbooks

As U.S. panel calls for online collaboration to provide lower-cost options, debate continues on the appropriate federal role.
June 1, 2007

The point is made clearly in a new federal report that responds to the rising cost of textbooks: Enacting legislation or regulatory measures that would force the hand of publishers, bookstores, colleges or faculty members is "counterproductive."

Not that the recommendation to avoid imposing price controls or mandating specific initiatives is surprising given publishers' groups’ widely accepted argument that regulating their industry while taking a laissez-faire approach with other consumer markets would put the feds in a precarious spot.

The question of the appropriate federal role has lingered throughout the debate about textbook costs -- and has been answered by a few.

In March, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) introduced a textbook affordability bill that would require publishers to include the price of textbooks and supplemental material when providing information to faculty. It also calls on the companies to list a history of revisions and to offer textbooks and supplemental material in unbundled forms. (Many of the proposals mirror those listed in state bills.)

Last summer, Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), one of two lawmakers to call for the report, which is out today, and for a prior Government Accountability Office study of textbook costs, also took the legislative route. When the 109th Congress considered legislation to renew the Higher Education Act, Wu proposed an amendment that listed steps that all parties could take to provide more price transparency and options for students.

He pointed to the GAO report, which showed that college textbook prices nearly tripled between 1986 and 2004, rising 186 percent, or an average of 6 percent a year, during that time. By comparison, tuition and fees rose 7 percent a year and prices for all good rose an average of 3 percent a year in that span.

Both Durbin's and Wu's camps said they would like to push for textbook affordability language in pending Higher Education Act reauthorization bills -- though spokeswomen in each case said it is too early to offer specific details.

But there are plenty of people who prefer lists of best practices and voluntary recommendations to binding resolutions. Rep. Howard P. (Buck) McKeon, the California Republican and then-chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor, along with Wu called last spring for a series of hearings and a final report that would yield cost-saving solutions for students.

“Turn the Page: Making College Textbooks More Affordable,” is the result of a yearlong study by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, a nonpartisan federal panel that advises Congress on issues of access.

The advisory group adopts a common framing of the issue. The textbook market, it says, is driven by supply rather than demand. Publishers set the price. Bookstores order the products. Students have little, if any, direct influence over the final cost, format and quality of the textbook. The common retort from publishers: Pay more attention to the faculty role. They are free to choose cheaper editions or unbundled material but resoundingly say educational value trumps price in their purchasing decisions.

Officials at both the Association of American Publishers and the Student Public Interest Research Groups, the latter having lobbied hard for changes in the textbook market, said they are pleased with the report’s explanation of the issues and lack of finger pointing.

“Blaming or punishing any stakeholder for market failure is not the answer,” the report says.

A major theme of the report is that the textbook market is largely moving online, with both faculty and students asking for e-versions of content. The committee's centerpiece proposal is for a "national digital marketplace," a Web-based platform coordinated and hosted by individual colleges where publishers and other content providers could sell and distribute their material. The idea is that a one-stop shop puts publishers on a level playing field because faculty and students can compare costs and content. (The hope is for the competition to spur price cuts.)

Modeled off a program about to launch at California State University, the project would include a clearinghouse that would process each transaction and oversee copyright issues. Faculty would be able to pick and choose among publishers' material and create a printable or online course packet that could save students money. Faculty would make a single payment and students could also choose among items.

Each campus would have a customized page on the site that saves information about faculty purchases and class information after each use. The report says the online marketplace would also decrease marketing costs for publishers. It points out some potential roadblocks, including all involved agreeing on a single system and copyright policy, but says they are "clearly surmountable."

Among the report's other recommendations for decreasing student costs:

  • Expanding both textbook rental programs and buying consortiums that would strengthen the used book market.
  • Increasing no-cost content options and the use of "no-frills" textbooks and custom course packets.
  • Creating more textbook lending libraries.
  • Urging faculty to keep books longer, retain older editions and send information earlier to students and bookstores about what texts are being used.
  • Creating need-based grants or emergency vouchers that needy students could use to purchase material.

McKeon, now the House committee’s senior Republican member, said in a statement that the report provides “much-needed sunshine” on the textbook market and actions that some colleges and publishers have already taken to lower costs.

Wu, through a spokeswoman, said “the report didn’t get to some of the tough issues” but stopped short of giving details.

Dave Rosenfeld, national program director for the Student PIRGs, said at first look, the digital marketplace concept is “strong,” but that more information is needed.

He said while the report points out the inherent flaws in the textbook market and identifies several solutions, its advocacy of a strong used book market is weakened by its stance that a successful market automatically results in more new editions and higher prices -- the assumption being that the used book market harms publishers’ bottom lines enough to force them to both increase prices and issue superfluous editions just to recoup their costs. (He said there is no evidence of this happening.)

The PIRGs “wholeheartedly agree” with the report that regulatory measures that attempt to impose price caps, regulate the kind of content publishers create or mandate certain kinds of faculty behavior would be counterproductive, Rosenfeld said. He does advocate regulation to require more price transparency on the part of publishers in the short-term.

“The report opens the door for Congress and [state] legislatures to play a role in creating incentives for higher education institutions to adopt many of the report’s proposals.… This, too, is a valid role for policy makers to play,” Rosenfeld said.

Both Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at AAP, and Charles Schmidt, a spokesman with the National Association of College Stores, said they are pleased with the scope of the report and the committee’s decision to avoid mandates and blanket policies. Schmidt said that while the digital marketplace concept is one possible solution, the committee seemed to favor that concept over others that would make more sense for colleges and students who are less Internet savvy and who have less computer access.

E-books often are more expensive than traditional texts, and the custom material created from the proposed Web site would have limited buyback potential," he added. “[The marketplace] looks attractive at first, but if the goal is to help those in need, I’m not sure this is the silver bullet that the report is intimating,” Schmidt said.

Hildebrand said major questions about the idea need to be answered, such as who would pay for the expansive system and what the financial outcomes for each party would be.

But he said the committee has it right to focus on technology. “It’s a constructive conversation and it illustrates the complexity of the issue.”


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