Congress Questions Sky-High Costs of College Textbooks

By Orchowski, Peggy | Black Issues in Higher Education, August 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Congress Questions Sky-High Costs of College Textbooks


Orchowski, Peggy, Black Issues in Higher Education


Why are textbooks costing community college students almost 50 percent of what they pay for tuition each year?

Some members of the U.S. Congress and higher education officials sought to find an answer to that question at a recent hearing on Capitol Hill that explored the masons behind and potential solutions for the rising costs of college textbooks.

"The effect of the staggering costs of textbooks on our efforts to keep college affordable cannot be ignored," said Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., on opening a late-July hearing of the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness, which falls under the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

He cited reports showing that in 2002-2003, the average college student at a four-year institution paid nearly $900 a year for textbooks--an increase of 3.4 percent over the last seven years. Community college students paid an average of $807 a year. A new book costs an average of $102.44, while the average cost of a used book is $64.80--an increase of 33 percent since 1998.

The burden of textbook expenses varies with college costs.

"According to the College Board, the cost of course materials and supplies is about 6 percent of the total cost of attending a four-year public college or university," said Marc L. Fleischaker, legal counsel for the National Association of College Stores.

But the more than $800 a year community college students are doling out for books is 42 percent of the average annual tuition at a two-year school, which is $1,900, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

"The Government Accountability Office has been asked by Congress to conduct an investigation into the high price of college textbooks," McKeon said.

According to a study of book costs at California universities and community colleges by the California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), textbook publishers are driving up book costs.

The group's director, Merriah Fairchild, said their study, "Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks," found that "textbook publishers often produced new editions with few significant content changes, rendering older, used versions of the book obsolete and unavailable. (The publishers) use gimmicks, bells and whistles such as CD-ROMs and workbooks that 64 percent of faculty surveyed said they use 'rarely' or 'never' and which artificially inflate the cost of the textbooks."

But John Isley, the chairman of the Association of American Publishers and the executive vice president of the Pearson Higher Education and Professional Publishing company, disagreed.

"In almost all cases, the independent decision-maker in selecting instructional material for a specific course is the individual professor or a committee of instructors," he said. "College professors and instructors are in most cases the textbook authors as well." As for the bells and whistles, "generally print or media supplements are the result of the instructor's specific selection," Isley said. "Typically they are bundled with the book at a discount or offered separately. Often books are offered in various editions of decreasing costs from hardback to online; students can choose which to buy. New editions are typically published every three years to update content and improve instruction; some may sell only 1,000 copies, yet production costs especially for paper and marketing--are increasing.

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