September 10, 2008

Higher Ed. Bill Seeks To Lower Cost of Textbooks

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This is the second in a three part series analyzing the Higher Education Opportunity Act passed in August.

In an attempt to make the overall cost of attending college more affordable, Congressional lawmakers have targeted soaring textbook prices by imposing new requirements on publishers and retail sellers of course materials.
The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which President George Bush signed into law in August, contains specific provisions that aim to decrease the cost of textbooks by requiring greater institutional and publisher transparency in textbook sales.
Publishers will be required by July 2010 — when the provision of the law becomes effective — to help faculty members make more informed textbook selections by disclosing the actual retail price of a publication, the copyright dates of the three previous editions of a textbook, and whether a paperback edition is available.
Publishers that sell “bundles” will also have to provide students the options of purchasing each of the items — which often include textbooks, workbooks and CD-ROMs — separately.
Since 2004, college textbook prices have increased at nearly four times the rate of inflation, according to a study by the Federation of State Public Interest Research Groups (U.S. PIRG), which strongly supported the new law. The same study found that the average student spends nearly $900 each year on textbooks.
U.S. PIRG and several Student PIRGs have long sought to reduce college textbook costs. According to the group’s “Make Textbooks Affordable” campaign, this latest legislation marks the first major federal action aimed at textbook costs and will help millions of students across the country.
Critics of the publishing industry, like U.S. PIRG, have often alleged that publishers release new editions of textbooks too frequently without significantly revising or altering their content. Newer editions of the textbook can be sold at a higher price and often push older, less expensive editions of the same textbook out of the market.
The new law looks to curb that practice by burdening publishers to provide faculty with “a description of the substantial content revisions made between the current edition of [a textbook] and the previous edition.”
Margie Whiteleather, strategic projects manager for Cornell Business Services said that she thinks the new legislation will have a positive impact on the market for textbooks.
“I think it’s important for transparency in the publishing industry so that faculty understand what the retail price of books when they are choosing their course materials,” she said, “It’s not always made clear to them.”
Campus bookstores will also have to take steps to ensure textbook information is more transparent and accessible to students under the new legislation. The law says that schools will, “to the maximum extent practicable,” be required to include in their online course catalog textbook pricing and ISBN information for all courses.
An ISBN or International Standard Book Number is a unique code that identifies publications, and for students, makes it easy to find the exact edition of a textbook at another store or online. Providing this information early will allow students to easily shop around for textbooks and allow enough time before classes for book ordered online to be shipped, according to proponents of the legislation.
Currently at Cornell, students who log into the Cornell Store’s website can only see the ISBN information for their specific classes a few weeks before the semester begins.
Tom Romantic, director of The Cornell Store, said that from a logistical standpoint, it would be possible for the store to include ISBNs in the course catalog when students are pre-enrolling for classes, but it would not necessarily be helpful to students.
Romantic added that oftentimes professors do not select textbooks for a class until the semester is about to start. In May, for instance, the Cornell Store had information about only 40% of course materials for the following fall semester.
“We would be most concerned about poor or inaccurate information being made available because I think that’s worse than no information,” Romantic said, “We think that the best time to make [ISBN information] available is two weeks before classes begin.”
Whiteleather said that the Cornell Store would be working with the University Counsel’s office to determine exactly what it needs to do in order be in compliance with the law. She said the store would consider expanding ISBN availability to all courses.
When the Cornell Store first published ISBNs online several years ago, it feared that students would shop elsewhere, according to Whiteleather. However, that fear has somewhat dissipated as sales have remained flat over the past few years and students realized that the Cornell Store was more competitively priced that they had imagined, she said.
Whiteleather also said the Cornell Store will be seeking student input about textbook purchase habits in a survey this spring to help guide any possible changes to their business practices.
Joe Lu ’10 said he usually purchases his textbooks online because the Cornell Store is too expensive.
“I’ve gotten a $150 physics book for $20 online,” he said.
Lu said he wished the University would release the ISBN information for all courses, not just his enrolled classes.
“If you want to drop a course, you have to wait to see the ISBN of a new course,” he said, “It often prevents me from ordering online because it usually takes about a week for shipping.”
Rachel Abis ’11 also said she finds the Cornell Store textbooks to be expensive but shops there out of convenience.
“If I could find out which books I needed earlier, I would definitely consider buying the books more cheaply on Amazon,” she said.
Both Whiteleather and Romantic agreed that the overall impact of the new legislation on the cost of textbooks for Cornell students would be minimal.
Whiteleather speculated that the impact of the legislation may be felt more at schools where the school store has not been as proactive as the Cornell Store in fighting increasing textbook prices.
She said that the University has more than doubled its offering of used books, increased cheaper, electronic textbook purchases and worked closely with faculty to produce customized course packets in order to reduce costs for students.
“All the practices we have, we think, are better than the practices contained in the legislation, but we appreciate the national attention it places on the cost of textbooks,” Romantic said.