To Cut Textbook Costs, They're Printing Their Own

November 15, 2007

If a book list is the blueprint for a course, Rio Salado College is about to start from scratch.

On Wednesday, the Arizona community college announced a partnership with Pearson Custom Publishing to allow Rio Salado professors to piece together single individualized textbooks from multiple sources. The result, in what could be the first institution-wide initiative of its kind, will be a savings to students of up to 50 percent, the college estimates, as well as a savings of time to faculty, who often find themselves revising course materials to keep pace with continuously updated editions.

“I think everybody is really on board," said Jennifer Freed, the faculty chairwoman of instructional design. "In the long run it only helps students ... but it saves us a lot of time and money with development.”

At a college of 48,000 students -- about 27,000 of whom take classes online -- the allocation of resources must be efficient. Rio Salado, located in Tempe, Ariz., employs only 32 full-time faculty, most of whom are chairs of a specific academic discipline and have the freedom to design individual courses. Using a "one course, many sections" model, some 1,000 adjuncts adhere closely to the class plans they're given.

That means that for the relative handful of full-time professors who pick the textbooks, the short-term task of assembling customized materials for each course will theoretically pay off in the long run with course readings that are more complete, relevant and from a variety of different sources without overwhelming students with multiple hardcover tomes. And since faculty played an active role with the administration in devising the program, no one has raised concerns about being forced to jettison texts for a cheaper alternative.

"What this allows us to do is really take a look at what’s important for the students to learn, what are the key things in textbooks that are needed," said Patricia S. Case, the faculty chairwoman of social sciences and president of the faculty. She cited an example of a sociology course on gender for which it was difficult to find a balanced textbook. Now, she can pick sections from different books to form a more thorough, coherent whole. "I’m able to build something," she said.

Professors can pick from among the books in Pearson's library as well as outside sources in preparing their custom textbooks. For works not published by Pearson, there's a limit of 10 percent of the contents, but the company will then handle copyright clearance. Freed said the ability to include journal articles and extra readings amounted to "a super-textbook, if you will." A spokesman for the company, David Hakensen, said that the agreement with Rio Salado is unique for covering an entire college, but he noted that individual faculty at many colleges have used Pearson's custom publishing services for their own classes.

At Rio Salado, certain departments had already experimented with printing their own custom textbooks, but it wasn't until Pearson officials visited the college that the administration and faculty began to seriously discuss the perennial question of how to expand student access and reduce the burden on professors of keeping up with the latest editions of textbooks, said Carol Scarafiotti, the college's vice president emeritus.

It's "not a rare phone call" when a student tells an instructor that he or she will have to drop a class because of textbook costs, said Laura Helminski, the faculty chairwoman of communication. At a college where one credit hour costs $65, a textbook approaching $180 for nursing courses or $90 for communication can be a significant factor in whether a student can stay enrolled, she added. Nationwide, textbook costs have attracted attention from higher education circles as well as lawmakers, but no suggested legal fix has attempted to mandate a centralized solution like the one Rio Salado is adopting.

According to the college, the program will begin on Dec. 21 for classes starting in January. Scarafiotti said the current focus will be to shift the 100 largest courses to the customized textbook program, covering some 80 percent of enrollments. The college's goal is to produce 90 percent of all course textbooks through the customization process by October of 2009.

And for students used to scouring online for the best used-book deals, there will be only one place on the Internet to find the new custom materials: Bookstore @ Rio Salado, managed by Follett Higher Education Group.

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