Proposed bill could force University to start textbook rental program

By Jonathan Wroble

Ken Andersen, professor emeritus of speech communication, remembers being a college student in the 1950s. Some of his textbooks cost as little as 95 cents.

According to a College Board report, today’s typical student at a public university pays an annual fee of $942 for textbooks. Nationwide, about 25 universities have textbook rental programs. The University is not one of them.

“(This issue) is a concern that’s not only local but also national,” Andersen said. “(The University’s) Student Advisory Council to the (Illinois Board of Higher Education) has been quite concerned over the costs of textbooks.”

But a new amendment to the state’s Board of Higher Education Act, if adopted, could change all of that.

Introduced on Feb. 9 by Republican state Sen. Christine Radogno, the amendment would instate mandatory textbook rental programs at every public university in Illinois. It would take effect in the 2009-2010 academic year.

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In January, the Illinois Board of Higher Education issued a 128 page report addressing the feasibility of rental programs at public universities. The report estimated a two- to three year adoption period for the University.

The annual student fee under such a program, which ranged between $200 and $500 at other public schools, could not be approximated for the University.

Terry McLennand, assistant director of state relations in the Office of Governmental Relations, emphasized that the University is a research institution with a greater variety of courses than other schools. He also mentioned other factors that could complicate the installment of a rental program.

“(A textbook rental program) sounds good,” McLennand said. “But when you talk about an institution our size, how practical is it to look at?”

Numbers from the IBHE report illustrate McLennand’s point. For instance, Northeastern Illinois University, a teacher training institution, would require $2 million to begin a textbook rental program.

University of Illinois at Chicago, a research institution and one of the University’s sister campuses, would need $20.2 million to achieve the same end.

The University itself would spend over $15 million to initiate a rental program.

“The costs are very prohibitive,” McLennand said. “We would have to buy all those books, maintain them, store them (and) update them.”

This monetary issue seems particularly relevant because of the state’s funding of higher education over the last few years.

While the overall budget is currently increasing, it is still less than its last peak in 2001.

“The state has started to provide a reinvestment in higher education,” McLennand said. “But it’s hardly keeping up with our costs.”

Within the University, professors are often blamed for choosing textbooks that are both expensive and frequently updated.

Andersen, who serves as a Faculty Advisory Council representative to the IBHE, explained that many faculty members are sensitive to the issue.

“There are probably some faculty that don’t pay attention to the costs of textbooks,” he said. “The majority of them do care about that.”

In addition, professors fear the limitations that might accompany a textbook rental program.

“(Faculty) would be concerned with what restrictions would follow,” Andersen said. “Increasingly there’s going to be a question of what constitutes a textbook.”

The IBHE report does not mention art supplies or music, for example, which Andersen called “real cost(s) of education” for students in certain departments.

The report did note, however, that professors under a rental program would adhere to textbook selection deadlines and “adopt new editions only when changes are determined to be significant by the adopter.”

For McLennand, the proponents of statewide rental programs must take into account the individual characteristics of each public university prior to installment.

“We’re a different animal,” he said.

“It’s not just one size fits all.”