Textbook Cost a Growing Concern

By Sean Malone

Outside of the Philip D. Adler Journalism and Mass Communication Building, senior English Studies major Chris Cook cracks a wry smile when asked what was the most he’d ever had to pay for textbooks for a single semester.  “The most that I’ve spent on textbooks is approximately $430.  This semester, it’s was $330.”  While, this may seem like a steep price for textbooks for those who haven’t had to purchases any, either ever or recently, it’s actually slightly less than the national average.

According to the non-profit Public Interest Research Group, the national average for textbooks in a four year university for 2009-2010 was $1,122 for a full time student per year.  According to the University of Iowa Department of Admissions web site, the average cost of textbooks and supplies for an undergraduate is $1090.  As tuition and textbook costs continue to rise at levels much higher then the level of inflation, many students and their families question how they will be able to afford the costs of a secondary education.  In a July, 2005 report to Congress by the General Accounting Office investigating concerns over textbook pricing practices, the prospects for financial relief for students does not appear to be coming any time soon.

“Since December of 1986, textbook prices have nearly tripled, increasing by 186 percent, while tuition and fees increased by 240 percent and overall prices grew by 72 percent.” according to the GAO report.  There is no one particular issue that can be singled out as to the reason for the costly increase in textbooks however there may be a few factors worth examining.  These are the costs to the publishers, the frequency of revisions and the increased use of supplemental materials that are bundled together along with the text itself.

Sean Harty a Senior majoring in Chemistry with an Integrative Physiology Minor has been feeling the pinch of these increases due to the higher costs associated with science textbooks.  “The most I’ve ever spent?  I would say that I have spent at least $2,000.  This semester I am only taking one chemistry lab and I wasn’t required to purchase a book.  However, in the past, I would say that one full year in school, strictly for chemistry ran me $400.  The most I’ve spent on a book was for Analytical Chemistry I and that was $250”.

Publishers always dictate the price that the bookstores have to pay for the textbook.  They, as any business has to do, look at the costs for research and development, projected sales, production and what their competitors are charging for similar textbooks.  According to the report, the upfront costs to publishers can be substantial and include “cost of author advances, the development of content for the textbook and supplements, copyrights and permissions for illustrations and photographs, along with the costs of typesetting and printing enough copies to provide sample copies and cover expected sales.”

A trend that had been noticed in the G.A.O. report that would seem to raise concerns for universities, their students, and faculty would be the amount of time between revisions of textbooks.  The frequency of revisions adversely affects the amount of used textbooks available and thus the student’s ability to find used textbooks at discounted rates.  As well, the potential for student’s to sell their textbooks back at the end of the semester for any amount of money is put into jeopardy.  “Publishers agreed that the revision cycle for many books has accelerated over time, but most said that it has been stable in recent years. While textbook revision cycles can vary based on several factors, such as the level of the course and the discipline, publishers told us that textbooks are generally revised every 3 to 4 years, compared with cycles of 4 to 5 years that were standard 10 to 20 years ago.”

The bundling of textbooks and supplemental materials is one of the major reasons that publishers are citing for the dramatic increase in the costs of textbook production.  The use of additional companion web sites and computer programs that are used in conjunction with the physical textbook add to the cost of production according to the publishers.  In many cases, there is much of the course work that needs to be completed online, thereby freeing teaching assistants and professors from grading actual papers.  The downside to this would appear to be that even if a student can buy a less expensive textbook, they often still have to pay the publisher for an individual access code for the online materials which is almost the same amount that it would have cost them to buy the bundle.

This alternative pricing set by publishers may be in response to an act of Congress.  HR 4137, or The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 which went into effect on July, 1 of this year dictates that universities are required to post the required course materials, with retail prices for all classes listed in online course schedules.  Publishers are also now required to sell textbooks, supplementary materials and CD’s individually rather than in bundles.

While this act of Congress does attempt to address some of the issues facing students, faculty and universities, it is most likely not a cure all for a constantly changing industry.  With more and more universities and their instructors begin to post readings and materials on-line, the ability for students to purchase textbooks from on-line distributors and e-books as alternatives to the university bookstore, the possibility for a stabilization of textbook prices may be on the horizon.

(All Images Courtesy of Getty Images)

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