REPORT: The rising costs of textbooks

By Brittney Foreman

College textbook prices are rising at about four times the rate of inflation, according to a study done in February by the national Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs. According to the report, the average student spends about $900 per year on books, which is almost 20 percent of tuition and fees at a four-year public institution.

“I think that it’s absurd how much they cost,” said Whitney Harris, who will be a senior in Communications in the fall. “The cost of going to school is so high you’d think the cost of textbooks would be included, or much less … but they’re not.”

As the problem of high textbook costs remains an issue on campuses across the country, many schools, organizations and governmental bodies are stepping up to address the dilema.

Friday, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance released a 95-page report to the government highlighting the solutions to soaring textbook prices. The ACSFA affords advice to the U.S. Department of Education Secretary on student financial aid policy.

“The (ACSFA) report offers a really smart package of solutions, I think,” said Dave Rosenfeld, director for the Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs, which is run by student Public Interest Research Groups and student government associations in fourteen states. He said students on the campaign have been working with staff from the ACSFA for the past year.

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    The ACSFA report highlights that the current textbook market fails to efficiently meet the needs of students, who have virtually no input in what books faculty choose. Although many short-run solutions are available and should be implemented, the ACSFA recommended a restructuring of the whole system.

    Some “smart” solutions to the problem of high textbook costs highlighted in the ACSFA report include: A guaranteed book buy-back program, faculty considering less expensive alternatives, public institutions providing information about textbooks before a term starts, an increase of library resources, publishers offering supplemental materials separately instead of bundling books with CDs and other things, institutions implementing a textbook rental program, government improvement of related financial aid policies and the use of online textbooks and/or supplements.

    The report highlights the necessity of a “national digital marketplace – that can meet the needs of all stakeholders, particularly students and families.” Currently, California State University is in the process of implementing such a system.

    “A digital marketplace puts all the options side by side so there is more competition in the market,” Rosenfeld said.

    According to a press release sent out by the Committee on Education and Labor in Washington D.C. on Wednesday, a digital marketplace would allow students the option to purchase textbook content in online format, traditional bound format or as a basic print-out.

    In-state solutions

    Legislative officials in Illinois are taking action toward larger-scale solutions.

    Illinois state senator Mattie Hunter proposed three bills concerning textbook prices in February. The legislation includes the Textbook Advisory Committee act, the Textbook Consumer Information act and a bill that amends previous tax acts.

    The Textbook Advisory Committee act would require colleges and universities in Illinois to set up committees that would review and enact policies pertaining to textbook costs.

    The Textbook Consumer Information act requires publishers to readily provide the price of textbooks and supplements as well as information on changes made to new editions. This act also requires the cooperation of faculty and bookstores to provide like information to consumers.

    The amendments to previous tax acts would provide a tax credit for those in Illinois who purchase textbooks during the taxable year. According to details outlined on the Illinois General Assembly Web site, the credit cannot exceed $75 with respect to all textbooks purchased.

    Don Sevener, director of external relations for the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said Hunter’s bills were voted on and passed the Senate but were not reviewed by the House in time. The bills were re-referred to the Rules committee on May 31. The bills will sit there until the General Assembly adjourns in January 2009, unless the Rules committee decides to send them back out to the House, Sevener said.

    “The bills themselves would be such large steps in the right direction,” student board member for the Student Advisory Committee Matt DeRosa said.

    The SAC, a subset of the IBHE, is comprised of student volunteers from Illinois private, public and community colleges. SAC works to advise the IBHE on issues pertaining to higher education from a student perspective. During its meeting at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Ill., on Saturday and Sunday, the committee discussed the textbook issue.

    “This weekend, the Student Advisory Committee … was in unanimous support of the bills proposed by Mattie Hunter,” said DeRosa, a senior in Education.

    He also said that if the bills do not go through this year, he hopes the support by the SAC will influence Senator Hunter to reintroduce them.

    As a result of the SAC taking formal action to support Hunter’s bills, Jason Wallace, chairperson for the SAC, plans to include it in the report he will give at the IBHE meeting in Springfield on Tuesday.

    “We still feel that the price of textbooks is a problem for students and we would like to see the state reduce the cost of textbook prices,” said Wallace, who is also a senior in political science at Illinois State University.

    Wallace said apart from the SAC offering a 50-page report to the IBHE on textbook affordability, IBHE has done studies itself. Sevener worked on the IBHE’s textbook rental program study in 2005, along with senator Hunter and other senate staff.

    The study addressed the frequent turnover of new editions, the bundling of coarse materials with textbooks and the absence of information that would allow students to do competitive shopping, Sevener said.

    He said a textbook rental program would be feasible if colleges and universities in Illinois received enough money to implement one. He also said it may not be appropriate for all campuses or all colleges on a campus.

    Students act out

    If students want to get involved in the fight for decreasing textbook costs there are many avenues through which they could do so.

    Wallace said the SAC serves as a resource for students who would like to influence legislation on many issues that directly affect them, like the textbook cost issue.

    The Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs, active since 2003, also encourages students to get involved with the campaign on its Web site,, where one can find a summary as well as criticisms of the 95-page report the ACSFA sent to the government.

    Two congressmen, David Wu (D-Ore.) and Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), requested the ACSFA study done as a follow-up to the U.S. Government Accountability Office study done in 2005. The GAO study, citing textbooks have increased at rates twice that of inflation during the last two decades, confirmed much of the research done by the student PIRGs’ Campaign to Reduce College Textbook Costs.

    Rosenfeld cited a study the student PIRGs campaign completed when it first began in 2003, called Rip-off: 101.

    “(It was the) first study … (and) basically blew the lid on the scam that publishers run, and that’s how the campaign got started,” Rosenfeld said.

    Rosenfeld said the campaign was confronted with challenges when it came to researching what factors contributed to high textbook costs.

    “The textbook publishers have completely refused to acknowledge that they are a part of the problem,” Rosenfeld said. “The good news is that very few people really buy that.”

    A report of key points put together of the ACSFA study by the publishing industry shows publishers are making an effort to address the textbook issue, McGraw-Hill spokeswoman Mary Skafidas said.

    “Publishers understand college students’ concerns about college costs, including textbooks, and have already implemented and supported some key initiatives to address these concerns, as outlined in the (ACSFA) report,” Skafidas said in an e-mail statement.

    Also, in the press release put out by the Committee on Education and Labor on Wednesday, Senator McKeon, one of the people who ordered the ACSFA study to be done, said that he is pleased institutions and publishers are addressing the issue.

    Skafidas said that this release communicates what publishers have been doing already. She said they have been taking steps for years to address textbook costs, but they could not get anyone to pay attention.

    A textbook problem

    Students still see the price of textbooks as a present crisis.

    Eunyoung Jung, third year grad student in Education, resorts to buying her books online if they are cheaper. There are sites for students to utilize like and There are other online sites that allow students to swap books with each other for cheaper prices, such as and SafariX Textbooks Online. One University resource students can use is the Illini Book Exchange, which is maintained by University students.

    Sometimes, online sites are not reliable, DeRosa said, who once did not receive a book he ordered online. For him, buying textbooks from bookstores is quick and reliable, which means back to the problem of high textbook prices.

    Jared Marchiando, a sophomore in Business, said for campus bookstores there could be a better sell-back policy.

    “I spent like $400 on books and got 38 back (last semester),” Marchiando said. “It’s unfair (when) you buy a book at the beginning of the semester … (and) they don’t even tell you … until you go to sell them back that, ‘We’re using a new edition.'”