Legislation aims at reducing cost of textbooks

By Steffie Drucker

New legislation introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., aims at lessoning the financial blow that comes with buying textbooks at the start of each semester.

The bill, called the Affordable College Textbook Act, is co-sponsored by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and was introduced to Congress in November. It creates a grant program that will fund pilot programs for colleges and universities around the country to develop and expand the use of open-source textbooks. 

The bill also requires that any open-source resources created under the grant program must be made easily available online “in a machine-readable, digital format that anyone can directly download, edit and redistribute.”

ACTA is not the senator’s first piece of legislation dealing with textbooks. From travelling around Illinois, Durbin was surprised to learn many professors didn’t think it was important to question the cost of their assigned textbook. 

“If they liked it, they would recommend it, the bookstore would stock it and that was the end of the story,” he said in an email. “I didn’t think it should end there so I introduced my College Textbook Affordability Act in 2007 … My goal with that legislation was to make information on college textbooks more available.”

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Durbin said he feels the College Textbook Affordability Act was a success, citing a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office that found that students and faculty have more access to and awareness of textbook information and pricing.

Now, with ACTA, Durbin is going a step further by making those textbooks free, which would reduce students’ financial burden. 

“Students are not only concerned about a good education but also about not ending up in debt,” he said. “The price of a textbook should not be a barrier to education.”

A January 2014 study from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group Education Fund and The Student PIRGs detailed the effects textbook prices have on other academic decisions.

Nearly half of all students surveyed said the cost of textbooks had an impact on which and/or how many classes they took each semester. Sixty-five percent of respondents also decided not to buy a textbook due to cost, and 94 percent of those that had forgone purchasing a textbook due to cost said doing so would negatively impact their grade in a course.

The University of Illinois system received a $150,000 grant through the U.S. Department of Education in 2010 that was secured by Durbin. Under the grant, the University was directed to create an open-source textbook under its Open Source Textbook Initiative.

“U of I has actually been monitoring the cost of textbooks for a good number of years. That cost has gone up faster than inflation,” said Charlie Evans, former associate vice president for academic affairs who retired in October 2012.

Once funding was secured, Evans went to all three campuses to determine the book’s topic. Evans said the goal was to create a book that would be used for lower-division students — meaning students enrolled in freshmen and sophomore level classes — and the University’s community college partners. Once the topic of sustainability was chosen, Evans assembled a team of 25 faculty members to author the book.

“When we did our early studies on what was driving textbook costs, one of (legislators’) misperceptions was that faculty make a lot of money off of this,” Evans said. 

Jonathan Tomkin, research associate professor in geology and one of the authors of the book, confirmed that there are a small number of professors who make a lot of money from writing textbooks; those who do make significant money off their books only do so if it’s a widely circulated textbook for an introductory or survey course. Generally, professors who write textbooks for more advanced courses will not make much money off of it because fewer students use the book, he said.

“There’s another thing academics particularly value, and that’s recognition for your work. For a lot of academics, that’s sufficient,” he said.

Evans said he was impressed by the faculty’s eagerness to share their expertise.

“What we found was that faculty wanted to make an impact … and they saw this, in the world of online, as a way to do it,” Evans said. “I was really impressed … (that) faculty volunteered to do it.”

The final product, “Sustainability: A comprehensive foundation”, was published through Connexions, an effort initiated by Rice University that provides a home for open resources, said Tim Gilles, portfolio coordinator and project manager for Academic Programs and Services. 

“It’s totally open, anyone can log in, and … not only use it but they can create their own work from it,” he said. “Some authors were particularly encouraged by that.” 

While he was associate vice president of Academic Affairs, Evans, who paid for four children to go through college, oversaw studies monitoring textbook prices and cited publishers’ urging of professors to publish new editions of their books as a driving force. 

Tomkin said he keeps students’ wallets in mind when selecting his own course materials. 

“I feel it’s my responsibility to students to find the cheapest book that can do the job,” he said. “(But) you can’t expect (other professors) to do anything so you do need to make it a collective effort. I think what Senator Durbin is doing is an example of what will help.”

Evans and Gilles aren’t so sure. The grant money used to finance the project is gone, and some of the authors have moved on. 

“Everybody wants to reduce the cost of textbooks, but there’s a lot of work to be done if you want quality texts and if you want them to be maintained,” Gilles said.

If other projects financed by ACTA similarly lack the financial model necessary to keep the book viable, then its adaptability is moot. 

“I think it is not fair, not sustainable (financially), that the online version should cost you nothing,” Evans said. “I think there should be some cost because that would allow us then to go back to Professor Tomkin and give him money to update the book.”

Steffie can be reached at [email protected].