December 4, 2013

Legislation Could Make Textbooks More Affordable

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By TYLER ALICEA

Cornell students who experienced sticker shock this fall at the price of textbooks may have cause to rejoice: a piece of legislation, if passed by Congress, could help eliminate the need to pay for textbooks in the future.

The Affordable College Textbook Act seeks to provide colleges with the resources to create and expand the use of online textbooks, which would be licensed so anyone could access, add to and distribute them without any charge. The legislation is intended to help lower the costs of attending college across the country for students.

While many have expressed concerns about the rising costs of education, the costs of textbooks are also starting to gain national attention. The cost of college textbooks has increased by 812 percent since 1978, according to the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In addition, the cost of textbooks has nearly doubled since 1998, with the cost of textbooks and supplies totaling approximately $1,200 for the 2012-13 academic year ­­–– up from approximately $667 during the 1998-99 academic year, according to College Board.

“Consi­d­ering the ballooning prices of college textbooks and the growing mandate to make education more affordable, it it difficult to imagine the current system enduring without some fundamental changes,” Prof. Jamila Michener, government, said.

According to Prof. Ronald Ehrenberg, industrial and labor relations, economics, one reason textbooks have increased in price is due to the growth of the used textbook market and online sellers. In order to cope with the losses resulting from selling fewer new copies of books, publishers have begun to markup the price of each copy.

“It used to be the case that if a text sold 100 copies the first year, it would sell 60 the second and 40 the third year after a new edition was published. Now, very few copies are sold after the first year,” Ehrenberg said.

Margie Whiteleather, strategic projects manager for The Cornell Store, echoed Ehrenberg’s sentiments about used books, adding that The Cornell Store tries to obtain as many used books as possible to help students manage the costs of textbooks. Overall, the average savings on used books for students is 25 percent or more, while rented textbooks result in an average savings of 55 percent, she said.

The benefits of using open textbooks, however, would not be exclusive to lowering the costs of education. According to Ehrenberg, the open text books could be chosen and customized by professors.

“If professors could ‘tailor’ the open textbooks to meet their specific needs it would be great,” he said. “If not, they have an incentive to use books that cover exactly the material they want in a form that they want.”

The bill, however, may receieve some opposition from the textbook industry, according to Michener.

The inspiration behind the Affordable College Textbook Act — which was introduced by Senators Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Al Franken (D-Minn.) in November — was a successful open source textbook program created three years ago at the University of Illinois, which received funding through Durbin’s efforts, according to a press release from Durbin’s office.

The University of Illinois worked to create the introductory textbook “Sustainability: A Comprehensive Foundation” using the $150,000 Department of Education grant, ultimately leading to the creation of the Open Source Textbook Initiative, according to U.I. March 2012 press release. Since then, the book has seen widespread sales, according to Durbin.

“At least a dozen schools throughout the country have either contacted the University of Illinois about the text or are using it,” Durbin said in his press release. “This bill can replicate and build on this success and help make the cost of attending college more affordable.”

Senator Franken said he hopes that these “open textbooks” can help to alleviate some of the burdens preventing some from attending institutions of higher learning.

“In the fight to make college more affordable and accessible for Minnesota families, we can’t overlook the rising costs of textbooks,” Franken said in Durbin’s press release. “I’m proud to introduce this bill with Senator Durbin because it will help provide cheaper alternatives to traditional textbooks and keep more money in students’ pockets where it belongs.”

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