Consumer groups and textbook publishers have been tussling for some time now over whether textbook prices are rising too high and too fast. If either side thought that a federal study being released Tuesday would prove its case unequivocally, it was wrong.
The study  released today by the Government Accountability Office, which was requested last year by U.S. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), offers some evidence, as student groups have asserted,  that textbook prices have risen sharply -- at twice the rate of inflation over the past two decades. But the study by the GAO, which is Congress's investigative arm, also supports arguments by publishers that the increases have been driven in large part by "the increased investment publishers have made in new products to enhance instruction and learning."
And in many other cases, the study reports arguments made by one side or the other, but does not come down squarely in agreement with either.
Wu requested the GAO study, "College Textbooks: Enhanced Offerings Appear to Drive Recent Price Increases," in response to concerns that rising book prices were making it more difficult for some students, especially those from low-income families, to afford college.
In the last year or two, groups like the State Public Interest Research Groups' Higher Education Project  have issued a steady barrage of reports as part of a campaign to pressure publishers to lower their prices, contending among other things that textbook prices in the United States are significantly higher than comparable texts in other countries.
Publishers, meanwhile, have responded  by questioning the consumer groups' use of data and conclusions.
The GAO study is unlikely to resolve this war of words and numbers.
It takes as its starting point that the issue of textbook prices matters because the "cost of postsecondary attendance, including components such as tuition and textbooks, is of national importance because escalating costs can have negative effects on access and affordability," noting that American families spent more than $6 billion on new and used textbooks in the 2003-4 academic year.
Over all, the GAO report finds that college textbook prices nearly tripled between 1986 and 2004, rising 186 percent, or an average of 6 percent a year, during that time. Tuition and fees, meanwhile, rose 7 percent a year and prices for all goods have risen an average of 3 percent a year in that span.
Students at community colleges have borne those increases disproportionately, the GAO suggests. The agency concludes that first-time, full-time students at four-year private colleges spent about $850 for books and supplies in their first year, 8 percent of the cost of tuition and fees during academic year 2003-2004. Students paying in-state tuition at public colleges spent $898, or 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees, on books and supplies, while those at public two-year institutions spent $886, or 72 percent of their tuition and fee costs, on books and supplies.
“This report confirms what we have said for 2 years,” Merriah Fairchild, higher education advocate for the Student PIRGs, said in a news release. “First, textbooks are a significant college cost; second, textbook prices are skyrocketing; third, publisher’s practices contribute to the high cost of textbooks. Given how important education is in our society, practices like those of the publishers cited in the GAO report that limit educational access are unacceptable.”
The Association of American Publishers, though, challenges  the price statistics that underpin the GAO report. J. Bruce Hildebrand, the group's executive director for higher education, cites statistics from the College Board and other sources showing that the average student in the university system in Oregon (where Wu is from), for example, spent $15,379 over all for his or her education in 2005-6, and that books and supplies accounted for about 8 percent of those costs. But because supplies make up about 30 percent of that category, Hildebrand said, "about 5.6 percent of the student dollar in Oregon goes to textbooks."
The GAO reports notes that the publishers' association "expressed concern about the limitations of the data we used in determining textbook price increases over time, and the proportion of tuition and fees that spending on textbooks and supplies represent for students at different types of postsecondary institutions." The government agency added: "AAP also suggested alternative data sources for addressing these issues, but we found that they were not sufficiently reliable for our purposes."
While publishers might have been dissatisfied with the GAO's findings on what has happened to textbook prices, they were quite pleased by the agency's explanations for those increases. "The primary factor" driving them, the GAO said, has been publishers' efforts to add technology applications and other enhancements that improve the quality of instruction and learning.
"Publishers told us they have made these investments to meet changing needs of higher education, such as the increase in part-time faculty who require greater instructional support and supplements that will enhance student learning of the subject matter," the GAO investigators said.
The agency cited examples such as online homework and quizzes "online homework and quizzes that allow instructors to track student progress quickly," and "more extensive curricular support including lesson plans, homework sets, multimedia lectures, and even workshops on specific teaching approaches." The report adds: "While these materials are provided at no cost to instructors, the cost of developing them is built into the price of the textbook."
The GAO notes -- but does not take a stand on -- complaints by student groups that "bundling" such additional content into the price of the textbooks without giving students an option of forgoing it. In response to the concern expressed often by critics that publishers are releasing revised versions of books too frequently, the GAO said that publishers had acknowledged that textbooks are typically revised every three to four years now, compared to every four to five years a decade or two ago.
The report also acknowledges that textbook publishers charge higher prices for editions in the United States than for similar versions sold in other countries, but says that such practices are common in the pharmaceutical and other industries.