Different Tacks on Textbook Choice

Colleges grapple with ways to offer students cheaper options, but research suggests problems with some methods.
February 19, 2008

At times over the past year, as several states mulled legislation mandating more textbook pricing disclosure from publishers, it seemed as if each state legislator would have something to say about the rising cost of textbooks.

Congress already has taken interest, buoyed by studies showing that textbook prices are rising faster than the rate of inflation, but not as much as tuition costs and other higher education expenses. Legislation approved earlier this month by the House of Representatives to renew the Higher Education Act would follow the state bills in asking publishers for more information about pricing and changes from past editions -- even though the group that represents those companies says much of the requested information is already readily available.

That bill also would call on colleges to put information about required books in their course schedules to help students shop for books more cost effectively. And an amendment that passed would create a pilot competitive grant program (available to no more than 10 colleges) to assist them in setting up textbook rental programs.

It's possible to lose sight of the fact that, following much public concern, colleges are thinking about many of these issues on their own and in many cases acting voluntarily in order to give students options.They are adopting book rental or buyback programs. Students and other advocacy groups are calling on professors to release book information as early as possible so that those taking the course can track ISBN numbers and scour the internet for price comparisons.

The University of Virginia Bookstore is combining several methods in an effort to reduce cost for students. The college-run store this spring expanded textbook rental and guaranteed buyback programs, and added electronic book offerings. Jonathan Kates, executive director of the bookstore, said more and more professors there are deciding to purchase copies of older book editions, which can be sold back and bought more cheaply, so long as the material in the updated version isn't a necessity for students. Using this option, students save an average of 75 percent over new book prices, according to the university. According to the National Association of College Stores, used book prices typically range from $22 to $72, with the average price being $44.

Kates said the key is to work closely with faculty to identify the types of books that have a long shelf live. It's also a matter of speculation from the bookstore's end. "The whole goal is to ensure that professors have the academic freedom they need while helping them make decisions that can benefit the student as well," he added. "It became so clear that students were getting fed up; they were taking hits."

Professors who take part in the rental program are asked to use the same edition of their textbook for at least two semesters, Kates said. That can be a hindrance for some faculty, which is part of the reason why as of spring 2006, textbook rental services were offered by only about 1 percent of institutions whose bookstores were members of the NACS. The organization doesn't have a formal position on such programs, though Charles Schmidt, an association spokesman, said his group supports the pilot competitive grant program idea. Publishers often say that one reason prices are higher on new textbooks is they know those books will be sold, resold and possibly rented -- thus the need for the initial premium.

Another problem is the startup costs associated with the programs. Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the college stores, has explained that it takes a few semesters of rental use before a store recoups its initial costs of purchasing the titles. Libertowski also pointed out that college stores don’t select much of their inventory; professors most often provide them with a list of titles.

The Virginia bookstore is also upping the number of digital “e-book” titles, and those texts cost up to 30 percent less than new printed ones, according to the university. Still, early results from a college store association study show that only 18 percent of students indicate they have actually purchased electronic course material. The consumer trends research shows that the majority of students still prefer a traditional textbook to an electronic version.

Still, some companies are betting that the tipping point for e-texts, if it hasn't already come, is on its way. They are investing in resources for e-books and preparing for what they deem student and faculty demand.

Some colleges also have experimented with custom publishing arrangements. This fall, Rio Salado College, in Arizona, announced a partnership with Pearson Custom Publishing to allow the college's professors to patch together single individualized textbooks from multiple sources. College officials said students could save up to 50 percent on the material, and professors would save time not having to revise course materials to keep pace with continuously updated editions. 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.

“Our stores do work on custom publishing, and the best thing about it is that it increases utilization of the books," Schmidt said. "The odds are you're going to use the whole book.”

The University of Notre Dame has also made changes to the process of ordering and buying course packets. Professors have long had two options -- go through the campus bookstore, which uses a third-party custom publishing company to do copyright and clearance, or go through the College of Arts and Letters, which has an internal print and copy shop.

Last semester, the college's decision to consolidate course packet distribution by selling all of them through the bookstore was met with widespread student dissatisfaction, because the store marked up copyright costs and production fees -- and thus the packets were more expensive. Another issue was that students were pulling the wrong packet from the shelves, because in some large classes different sessions had different versions of the material.

The consolidation move was made because it was thought to be more convenient for students to buy all the material in one place, according to Dan Skendzel, director of administrative services for the university.

But this semester, after a flurry of student complaints, the college moved back to selling packets internally (though professors can still sell through the bookstore). This time around, instead of selling the packets out of its production site, the college is selling them in a conference room in an academic building, and is allowing students to pay with their accounts.

Rob Becht, director of budget and operations for the college, said faculty support the move. And at the same time, the bookstore has agreed to stop marking up copyright costs, which has lowered the price of books for students, Skendzel said.


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