October 22, 2003

Schumer Fights Rising Book Prices

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If you think your textbooks cost too much, you might get some help from a Congressman who is on the same page. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) is concerned with the rising costs of college textbooks, and his office recently conducted a study to determine the amount of money college students in New York are spending on required books.

The study included 150 courses taken by a typical student at 20 colleges and universities throughout New York.

Schumer’s study found that college freshmen or sophomores taking nine introductory courses during the academic year will spend an average of $922, assuming they purchase all of their required texts. Students at Cornell University, according to the study, spend approximately $1,049 per year. Of course, the cost of a textbook often varies by subject. Students taking subjects like physics, economics or courses in the Hotel School can expect to pay more for books than students in the humanities. English texts are among the cheapest. At Cornell, the required Biology 101 texts totaled $127.50. The most expensive book offered at the Cornell store is a physics text, selling for $181.

The wholesale prices of college textbooks have increased 41 percent since 1998, according to the National Association of College Stores. This increase is more than double the price increase of regular books over the same five-year period.

In a recent press release, Schumer stated, “In today’s America, getting a college degree is as vital as having air to breathe. But with costs going up as much as they have, the cost of getting that degree is backbreaking and it’s only getting worse. After they pay tuition, parents and students are getting slapped with shockingly high costs for textbooks in class after class, at school after school.”

“We as employees at Cornell share the concern of high textbook costs for students,” said Margie Whiteleather, project manager for the Cornell Store. She explained that Cornell tries to provide cheaper options for students by offering course packets and used books, conducting book buyback and checking with faculty to make sure supplements are necessary.

Cornell ranks second in the country in its use of course packets, according to Whiteleather. She said that course packets bring costs down considerably for students because they allow professors to select chapters from books rather than assigning entire textbooks to purchase. Additionally, if Cornell subscribes to a publication and can legally reproduce its articles for no cost, students can completely avoid copyright charges for these articles. Whiteleather said costs might be higher at Cornell than at other schools because of Cornell’s emphasis on the sciences.

Judith Platt, a spokesperson for the Association of American Publishers, questioned the numbers that led to the figure of a 41 percent increase in book prices. “We think they’re high. We’re puzzled where they came from,” she said.

“American students are getting an enormous standard of quality,” Platt said. She referred to the teaching aides, pedagogical materials and 5-color graphics that increase the quality but also the price of many textbooks. “A really wonderful … college textbook would sell about 40,000 copies,” she said. “It’s not a mass market business.”

According to the National Association of College Stores, publishers earn 57 cents for each dollar sold, with an after-tax profit of 7 cents. The college store receives about 18 cents for personnel and administrative costs, with less than 5 cents in profits before taxes. The author often earns about 12 cents.

Platt was concerned with the “sticker shock” of textbook prices. “It’s a matter of priorities too,” she said. Platt added that some students “won’t think twice about paying [the cost of a textbook] for a pair of sneakers.”

“A good college textbook, except for the professor, is probably the most valuable resource that the student has in mastering course material,” Platt said. “Publishers are parents too. We are very sympathetic to what is happening. Higher education has taken an enormous hit.”

A current practice which may contribute to higher priced textbooks is the publishers’ use of bundling, which refers to the packaging of a textbook with supplementary items such as study guides and CD-ROMS. Publishers do not offer these items separately, according to Whiteleather, so it is hard to determine whether the increased costs are due to the supplements or other publishing costs. In addition, they make used copies of the textbooks seem out of date, preventing students and campus stores from obtaining cheaper copies.

When deciding which texts to assign, professors often do not realize that bundles sometimes contain the same edition with more attractive packaging, according to Whiteleather. She explained that the Cornell Store speaks to about 50 faculty members each year, discussing the price differences for students and making sure that they want the supplementary items being offered. Most do not see a need for the supplements.

One of the most problematic aspects of increasing textbook prices is the fact that students often have no choice in which books to buy. Books assigned by professors are the ones a student must use for the course. Also, a problem may arise in some cases when a professor assigns his or her own text for the class to purchase, a decision that is sometimes made to boost personal profits.

But with experience, both college students and companies are becoming more savvy. Upperclassmen have a better sense of when they do not need to purchase textbooks and share books or use the ones on reserve at the library.

“There are definitely students who are not buying textbooks [from the Cornell Store],” Whiteleather said.

Online discounters provide more competition in the unique textbook market. Companies now offer a variety of used textbooks available for purchase on the web, which can be delivered to students at their dorms or apartments. Students order from websites such as Amazon, Barnes & Noble and even eBay. Allie Bodznick ’05 sometimes buys her books online from Barnes & Noble because “they have pretty much the same prices, if not exactly. But it’s more likely you’ll find the book you want used than at the [Cornell] Store.”

Terry Tan ’04, buys books online because “sometimes Amazon offers discount deals.” He explained that he now purchases fewer books at the beginning of the semester to see how much he will need to use them and if they are actually worth purchasing.

Janine Cochol ’05, who has always bought books from the Cornell Store because of its convenience, once tried to save money by sharing a textbook with her roommate. It turned out to be difficult to share the book, especially right before the exam, when both needed it most. “I would never do it again, no matter how expensive the book was,” she said.

Another recent trend in online buying includes purchasing international versions of American textbooks from abroad, where they are often sold at much lower prices. Both students and campus stores have begun to buy some of these cheaper copies. The Cornell Store has not purchased these versions overseas, according to Whiteleather, but they would be interested in looking into it as a potential option for the future.

The majority of campus stores don’t buy books from abroad, according to Laura Nakoneczny, spokesperson for the National Association of College Stores. “There is a strong sense of, ‘Is>

s an ethical thing to do?'”

Nakoneczny said that she would rather see publishers change the pricing of their textbooks than have to go around the American markets. “Our major concern is that we think this practice represents price gaug
ing,” she said. Nakoneczny explained, “Publishers would argue that foreign markets can’t bear the costs of American textbooks without a price reduction.”

Platt explained that publishers began producing cheaper versions of texts that were only for sale in third-world countries, although abroad editions have now become much more similar to American versions.

“It does help to lower the per unit cost in the U.S. as well,” she said of international markets. Following a recent federal College Tuition Tax Dedication, which allowed New Yorkers to deduct up to $3,000 in college tuition on their federal taxes as of April 2003, Sen. Schumer is proposing a similar policy for textbooks. He hopes to make up to $1,000 in college texts tax-deductible.

“For the first time ever, this proposal would let parents or students deduct the cost of their books from their taxes. This means real dollars and real savings for middle class families who have to beg and borrow to send their kids to college,” Schumer said in his press release.

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz