Rising cost of textbooks national issue

Daina Amorosano

As the cost of textbooks rises across the country, fingers of blame point in all directions, inciting responses at the university, state and federal level.

The Office of Academic Affairs is currently working with the University Shop to reach the long-run goal of reducing textbook costs by 20 to 25 percent and will review their progress in about a year, according to Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs Craig Wheeland.

The University Shop estimates that if students buy all the required texts for each course, they spend between $400 and $800 per semester, depending on their major. Arts and sciences students tend to spend the least, while costs are higher for business, nursing and engineering students.

The estimated national average cost of textbooks is $700 to $1,000 per year, according to the Public Interest Research Group. In the past, this number has risen steadily at three times the rate of inflation and twice the rate of tuition increases, according to PIRG, and it has not gone unnoticed.

“Since the publishers have been caught [hiking up the prices], this has changed, but the cost of textbooks is still higher than it should be,” said Director of the University Shop Frank Henninger. “Publishing companies look the guiltiest. The bookstore is a victim in all of this, but since we directly sell the textbooks, we look guilty, too.”

For the past year and a half, the Office of Academic Affairs and the University shop have worked on initiatives to lower the cost of textbooks.

“We e-mailed every faculty member ’10 Ways to Lower the Cost of Textbooks,’ talked to chairs and encouraged them to have a representative from the bookstore come present to their departments,” Wheeland said.

Some of those 10 ways include departmental standardization and the use of e-reserves, course packs and old editions with supplemental materials.

“We encourage faculty to get book orders in on time and reuse books and previous edition texts,” Wheeland said.

Due dates for book orders are critical in maximizing used books in the bookstore, as well as ensuring the maximum buyback price for students, according to Henninger. When textbooks are not readopted in time, the bookstore sends them back to the wholesaler or publisher.

“If we can build our used book program, everyone will be happy – except for the publishers,” he said.

However, in a good semester, only about 60 percent of faculty submits book adoption forms by the deadline, with more cooperation transitioning from fall to spring semesters, according to Henninger, who also noted the short turnaround time.

“Often, there are legitimate reasons to miss the deadline,” Wheeland said.

Professors might be unsure if they are going to teach that semester, or they may be teaching a new course, according to Wheeland.

In order for students to receive 50 percent of the current new price of a textbook, the bookstore must have an adoption for that book, and the bookstore will also only buy as many copies at 50 percent as it projects it will be able to sell next term based on enrollment and prior sales history. From there, the buyback drops to wholesale and is priced based primarily on national demand for the title, according to Henninger. In fall 2007, a survey of 600 undergraduates found that 7 percent of Villanova students did not buy a textbook for at least one class, but in the industry, those numbers are as high as 20 percent, according to Henninger.

“We encourage faculty to only use different books if it’s vital, and many professors already use the same core text from semester to semester with supplemental materials,” Wheeland said. “We can’t take away their freedom to design courses, but we can talk about ways to collaborate.”

In addition, the bookstore will soon begin to offer electronic textbooks at cheaper prices, according to Henninger.

Publishers often “bundle” textbooks, a practice that drives up prices and makes books harder to resell. In addition, they frequently produce new editions of textbooks, even in fields such as math and chemistry, where information has not changed significantly.

Laws regarding bundling have been proposed twice in Pa.

Despite the various efforts at the University level to alleviate the high cost of textbooks, problems persist.

Standardization is one way to counteract the ever-rising prices of publishing companies, as buying in bulk lessens the cost for the bookstore and enables it to build a used book market.

The clicker is now standardized across the University, according to Wheeland, and after a presentation from the University shop, the engineering department standardized textbooks. However, the bookstore currently stocks seven versions of “King Lear” and 17 different introductory psychology textbooks.

“The Psychology Department has not considered standardizing the textbook across sections of General Psychology, nor has it been suggested to us as a cost-saving measure,” Chair of the Psychology Department Thomas Toppino wrote in an e-mail.

While students are free to shop around before they buy their textbooks, students on academic or athletic scholarships must buy from the bookstore, according to Henninger.

“Even if professors encourage students to buy their books on Amazon, they should let the bookstore know because they must still place an order,” Associate VP for Auxiliary Services Rick Sieber said. “Communication is key.”

At the federal level, the Higher Education Opportunity Act is a renewal of an act in the 1960’s that will be effective July 1, 2010. The federal mandate requires all universities who receive federal aid or grant money through scholarship programs to reveal textbooks and total costs at the time of registration.

While the mandate will allow students to gauge the cost of textbooks before registering for a class, it also presents challenges in terms of compliance and the technology itself.

The law is restrictive, especially looking at spring registration for the fall, according to Wheeland.

“Professors often use the summer to redesign their courses,” he said. “Pushing up the deadline two months is going to make it worse. That said, once we have a way to make the information available on the master course list, there are a lot of courses where the faculty do know the textbooks for.”

Students look forward to the opportunity to know the textbook list in advance.

“The sooner we know our textbooks for each course, the easier it will be for us to shop around for the best possible prices,” junior Kristina Shepard said.

“In terms of fixing this problem I think it really requires the students, administration and faculty to work together,” Student Body President Daniel Gelwicks said. “Instead of purchasing a book to only read one chapter students and faculty can work together to find copies of the book in the library or make copies of only the necessary material.”

“In addition to our own on-campus buyback, we order used books from a dozen wholesalers before ordering from publishers,” he said. “This maximizes the number of used books available to students in the University Shop.”

The price elasticity of demand for textbooks has been measured to be as low as -.2, meaning that a 10 percent increase in textbook prices will cause only a two percent decline in the number of textbooks purchased, according to the Koch Report.

“At this moment in time it seems that we are almost at the mercy of the publishers when it comes down to it,” Gelwicks said.