Textbook Turmoil: Is Containing the Cost of College Textbooks a Role for State Legislatures?

Article excerpt

Carlyn Mumm paid more for her books--$975--one semester as a freshman at Arizona State University than her father paid for tuition--$600--at the University of Illinois in 1977. For some of her science and business classes, one book can cost nearly $200.

Mumm's biggest frustration is that many of her textbooks are used for only one semester and students get very little when selling the books back. She says she got nothing at all for a $175 accounting book because a new edition was coming out.

Undergraduate students have many courses with expensive textbooks that contain extra supplementary material such as CDs and workbooks that they never use but have to buy. The extra materials run about 30 percent of the cost of the books, Mumm says. "Professors don't generally teach from the course books and the CDs and workbooks are just study guides that don't help in any way." Worse, she says, is that classes often require two books and normally one of them is never used.

Professors often create "course packs" of materials and articles for students that are much cheaper, but bookstores don't allow students to return them--even if they are unused.

"My dad tried to help me buy some Microsoft booklets for a computer science class on the Internet," she says. "But we found out that what I needed was written specifically for ASU. I could only get them at the bookstore," Munn says.

State legislators are hearing similar stories from students and parents frustrated by the high cost of college textbooks piled on top of tuition hikes.

"Many students and their families are increasingly finding college financially out of reach," says Oklahoma House Speaker Lance Cargill. "Tuition costs are just one component, we need to look at all of the hidden costs, such as fees, textbooks and supplies."

Legislators are struggling to figure out the best ways to contain the rising cost of college. In 2007 alone, more than 85 bills in 27 states dealt with textbook affordability. At the end of the year, 10 states enacted 15 laws or resolutions to reduce textbook costs. They take a variety of approaches from mandates and regulations to encouragements and promotions of rental and buy-back programs.

The College Board estimates that the average four-year undergraduate student spent $942 on textbooks and supplies during the 2006-07 academic year. That's 16 percent of the average tuition of $5,836 and about 6 percent of total costs (including room and board) for an in-state student. It's an even higher percentage for community college students who pay less tuition, but the same for books.


The Association of American Publishers, which has mobilized both at the state and national level to deal head on with increased legislative activity on the issue, says the real cost for textbooks is about $600. The AAP argues that the College Board figure is misleading because it includes supplies--including computers, lab equipment and calculators.

Whether the number is $900 or $600, many students claim there's been an unfair price increase in books. According to a 2005 GAO Report, college textbook prices have increased at twice the rate of inflation over the last two decades. From December 1986 to December 2004, overall inflation was 72 percent, while textbooks increased 186 percent, and tuition and fees increased by 240 percent.


Much of the legislation introduced on this issue has been pushed by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG), which is taking on the publishing industry on behalf of college students. PIRG calls the situation "Rip-Off 101" and says publishers are involved in a scam intended to maximize profit at the expense of the students.

PIRG claims the most widely purchased textbooks on college campuses have new editions published about every three years and that they cost, on average, 45 percent more than used copies of the previous edition. …