Think college tuition costs are out of control? Consider college textbooks. "My books this semester cost close to $500," says Jerrica Thomas, a sophomore theater major at Bradley University. The book for a stage makeup class was $132 alone.
Think college tuition costs are out of control? Consider college textbooks.
"My books this semester cost close to $500," says Jerrica Thomas, a sophomore theater major at Bradley University. The book for a stage makeup class was $132 alone.
She can't understand why editions of college textbooks change so often. Costs rise with each new edition, she says, though one edition doesn't seem that different from the next.
"Is it not possible to use the same edition a few years so we don't always have to pay the highest price?"
She also wonders why professors can't warn students when a course might require $80 to $100 in materials in addition to a $200 book.
Last year, Thomas couldn't afford to buy every book for every class, so she borrowed books from classmates. But she doesn't think she has it as hard as students majoring in math, chemistry or accounting. "Some of those books are $200 or $300 each; I really feel for them."
Kyle Malinowski majors in accounting and international business at Bradley. Only one of his books was a new edition, but his total book cost this semester was about $750, he says. "One was $270, and it was used."
Thomas and Malinowski aren't alone.
"It's gotten outrageous," says George Hopkins, who taught history at Western Illinois University for almost 40 years until he retired a few years ago.
"A professor who wants to can still find relatively inexpensive textbooks," he says. "That's if he wants to."
Hopkins, like Thomas, believes excessive revisions are a big part of the reason for textbook costs.
"I don't think the revisions were anywhere near that rapid in the 1960s and 1970s," he says.
According to a General Accounting Office study, first-time full-time students spent $898 for books at four-year public schools and $886 at two-year public schools for the school year ending in 2004. Other groups, from the National Association of College Book Stores to the College Board, have come up with different estimates for total annual expenditures. However, from 1987 to 2004, book costs rose faster than every other college expense, including tuition, at two-year public schools, and faster than every expense except room and board at four-year schools.
All college expenses rose faster than the Consumer Price Index over the same period, according to a report issued by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance. In every case, except room and board at four-year public schools, book costs rose faster.
The advisory committee reports to Congress and the U.S. Department of Education, but it's not the only group paying attention to book costs and examining ways to make them more affordable.
Textbook Affordability Act
"I was shocked to learn many professors do not know the retail price of the textbooks they are choosing for their class," U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said earlier this month. Major provisions of Durbin's College Textbook Affordability Act were included in the Higher Education Act signed by President George W. Bush earlier this month.
The law is designed to help students find less expensive, if not necessarily cheap, textbooks.
Publishers will be required to give faculty members the retail price of books, information on cheaper formats and a history of revisions. Colleges will have to include retail price and identifying textbook information, such as an ISBN number along with the title and author, in the course schedule as soon as possible. This is supposed to help bookstores receive orders from faculty in time to stock books and to give students information they need to search for lower prices online. Students also will be able to buy supplemental materials separate from the book - rather than bundled with the book, which adds to costs.
"It's a step," says Jim Carlson, director of Illinois State University's Bone Student Center. ISU already encourages many of the practices in the law.
"A lot of the legislation involves increasing transparency between publisher and faculty," says Charles Schmidt of the National Association of College Book Stores. The NACBS foresees logistical problems. Sometimes faculty members aren't hired until three weeks before a class starts, Schmidt says.
"Really, we have to ask ourselves, do you want students picking courses based on the cost of the textbook?"
Many schools, including ISU and Bradley, contract bookstore operations to Barnes & Noble. A number of schools that still operate their own bookstores are exploring other alternatives to lower costs. Eastern Illinois University at Charleston and Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, for example, offer book-rental programs. Rental programs require a huge up-front investment for the school.
Meanwhile, students have come up with their own alternatives, such as sharing books to split the costs, buying them online at significantly lower prices and warning fellow students when they don't need to buy the book for a certain class.
Malinowski recalls a professor who "strongly encouraged the class to buy the book even though we probably wouldn't use it." He bought the book, and he didn't use it.
The next semester, a friend took the class. "I told him not to buy the book. He got an A,' " Malinowski says.
Pam Adams can be reached at (309) 686-3245 or email@example.com.