Buying Books: Bill in State Legislature Takes Aim at High Textbook Prices
To any student who has ever dropped over $100 for the newest version of a chemistry book, the rising costs of textbooks are nothing new. A July 2005 Government Accountability Office report stated, “In the last two decades, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation but have followed close behind tuition increases. Increasing at an average of six percent per year, textbook prices nearly tripled from December 1986 to December 2004.”
Many legislators are attempting to combat this issue by introducing bills to education committees. Democratic state senators Tom Roberts, Teresa Fedor and Sue Morano presented one such bill, the S.B. 151, to the Ohio State Senate on April 24 of 2007. The bill’s goal is to provide students with cheap, easy access texts that are not needlessly updated or bundled to increase prices.
As stated by the Ohio government’s online summary, “[The bill] requires U.S. publishers desiring to offer textbooks to students of state institutions of higher education to provide, on a free web site, information about textbooks and supplemental learning materials sold by the publisher, including bundling practices, textbook modification and the publisher’s return policy.” Among other things, it also calls for a “textbook rental pilot program” to distribute cheap books in conjunction with state colleges and universities.
The National Association of College Stores, the self-proclaimed “professional trade association representing the $11 billion college retailing industry,” lists Ohio, California, New York and Alabama among the 25 states presenting 68 bills concerning textbooks.
In the meantime, students are dropping large sums of money on their course readings. “There have been semesters where it’s been $500,” said Phillip Smith, a College junior.
College sophomore Maia Brown complained, “It’s too expensive. We’re already paying a lot of money to go here that people don’t necessarily have.”
According to the GAO, the average college first-year spends $898 on texts by the end of his or her second semester. College first-year Raquel Farah-Robison has already fallen into this pattern, having spent approximately $400 on textbooks at the Oberlin College bookstore for her first semester. “Considering the fact that I bought almost all of my books used, they should’ve been less expensive,” said Farah-Robison. “I think the used books, especially, should have been half-price instead of only 25 percent off.”
Another first-year, Taylor Rogers, estimated that $300 covered her first semester texts, which she also purchased at the bookstore.
Some, however, get creative in order to keep costs on the lower end of the spectrum. Meredith Hickson, a College first-year, said, “I spent about $250. I only bought three books at the bookstore out of 25.” The rest of her books were purchased online at amazon.com. “It was probably harder and there’s more uncertainty, but overall, it was a pretty positive experience.”
Junior Greer Gable had mixed feelings about purchasing texts online: “I got books online for the first time this year, but I’m not sure how much money I saved in the long run with shipping. It was frustrating to be without books for a couple of weeks. You buy a book and by the time it gets here, you’re done with the book in class.”
Many students feel that the passage of a bill to address textbook pricing would have a positive effect on their wallets.
“I think that the part [of the bill] about having new editions marked with their changes is crucial. My two most expensive textbooks had past editions, and the only reason I couldn’t buy them used was because they weren’t the newest,” Robison said.
If the bill passes, beginning July 1st, 2008, publishers must provide information on a website stating all alterations in the textbook within the past ten years along with any planned upcoming changes.
Some publishing companies feel that the bill is well-intentioned, but may backfire. Mary Skafidas, senior manager in the corporate communications office of McGraw-Hill said, “We understand the challenges that students face and feel that legislation aimed at making higher education more affordable is a good thing. The aim of this particular bill is to create transparency in the higher education textbook market and help reduce the cost of education for students. However, it may have the unintended effect of making textbooks more expensive by piling on burdensome regulatory costs.”
Skafidas noted that students have other options besides the textbook. “We offer more choices for lower-cost texts than ever before. Examples include e-books and custom books.”
Environmental Studies visiting professor Rumi Shammin said that he normally requires that students have the latest editions of textbooks. “In environmental science, we are learning new information every year, and the most recent ones will have the most recent data and information, and they will be more compatible with other papers that are read in class.”
He went on to explain that his course may be different from other science classes where the principles of the course do not change, such as physics and biology, because the data that supports these fields do not vary drastically over time.
Shammin admitted that his textbook costs “over $100,” saying, “The textbook is an integral part to review the signs and related background information that are essential for every student to know to think about environmental issues critically.”
Shammin has never had an issue with an Oberlin student who was unable to afford a textbook, but if the situation should arise, he has a plan. “If it did, I would look into making more books available on reserve in the library and wouldn’t mind lending mine for short periods of time in urgent situations.” Of the bill, Shammin said, “If necessity for newer editions is correctly assessed, then I think this would definitely be a beneficial policy.”
According to the Office of Financial Aid, students who apply for aid have an $830 book allotment included in the calculation of how much money they qualify for in a given year. However, billed fees, such as tuition and room and board, come first in any scholarships or grants that are awarded. Once financial aid is given, the only way to gain extra money for books is to appeal to the Office and prove that the amount paid for books exceeds the $830 annual price tag already taken into consideration.
An option for acquiring texts free of charge is OhioLink. “If any college or university library in Ohio has a book that is a required purchase Oberlin students can request it,” said Allison Gallaher, head of circulation at Mudd Library. “There is a three week loan period, and you can renew it up to four times. That makes a grand total of fifteen weeks, which ought to cover a full semester.”
There are drawbacks to the OhioLink program, however. Gallaher said, “If anyone else needs the book, it has to be returned.” She also said that competition for books can be stiff, as more than one college or university could be requiring the same text simultaneously.
When needed for short periods of time, books accessed on reserve can be an alternative to purchasing textbooks. “We place on reserve materials that professors teaching the course ask us, so we start from the assumption that they anticipate competition for the book.” For this reason, she added, “There is a short loan period of three hours and a high fine of two dollars per hour.”
Gallaher explained how Oberlin makes an effort to assist students with textbook woes: “We don’t actively seek out new editions of texts. I think Oberlin professors make a real effort to not change what text is used any more often than is necessary exactly because of this problem. They know how prices are strapping students.”