Paying, dearly, for pages

When freshman Erin Feeley went to GW’s bookstore to buy her textbooks, she thought $400 would cover the bill.

Instead, the biomedical engineering major ended up paying almost $850 for all new, mostly new-edition books – before receiving a single class syllabus.

“It just makes college that much more expensive,” Feeley said. “With all the stuff you have to buy already, to come in on the first day and have to spend over $800 for books, it’s ridiculous.”

When it comes to exasperation over paying for books, Feeley has plenty of company. New-edition books can cost as much as $100, and with an average courseload of five classes, students often have to buy more than one book per class.

According to a new report released last month by the Government Accountability Office, college textbook costs have risen at roughly twice the rate of inflation over the past two decades. The GAO estimates that students pay an average of $900 a year, triple what they paid in the mid-1980s, not counting for inflation.

The main reason behind the soaring prices, the report found, is the growing trend of “bundling” – a process by which publishers package supplementary materials with the texts, driving up costs and making them harder to sell back. Today, books often come coupled with CD-ROMs, study guides and other pricey props, leaving students with heavier backpacks and lighter wallets.

“It’s a big issue, because textbooks are a significant college cost,” said Dave Rosenfeld, program director for the Student Public Interest Research Group, an advocacy organization at the forefront of the textbook issue. “If you’re a student and having a tough time paying for college as it is, then this is the kind of thing that could cause you to work longer hours or take out higher loans, which diminishes your opportunity to take advantage of your education.”

As prices rise, anger over textbook costs has gone from grumbling to a full-fledged campaign involving students, faculty and lawmakers. Activists point a finger directly at the publishing industry, which they fault for releasing unnecessary new editions of books before the originals have run their course in an effort to cut into the used textbook market.

“This is in fields like introductory physics that are still dealing with issues like gravity, whose concepts have not changed,” Rosenfeld said. “Regardless of whether it’s necessary, publishers have a business strategy that says, ‘put out a new edition every three or four years.’ It has nothing to do with content.”

People may have once viewed the cost of textbooks as a necessary additional charge, but studies indicate that it is becoming a more significant part of the overall cost of higher education. The GAO report found that textbook costs account for 8 percent of all school-related fees at private colleges, and 26 percent of school-related fees as public colleges.

But while some point to bundling and new editions as the source of inflation, publishers say they’re simply responding to market demands. Bruce Hildebrand, spokesman for the American Association of Publishers, said new materials are requested by professors, and that a majority of university faculty prefer the latest edition of a book, even at a higher price.”The bottom line is, what does the faculty want from the publishers,” Hildebrand said. “The market is so tough, and the professors are so discerning and demanding, that if you don’t have the best book, it’s not going to succeed. It’s that simple.”

Hildebrand also questioned the accuracy of the popular spending estimates, which often include both textbooks and supplies, saying the publishing association’s own research shows average costs of around $600 annually. He added that publishers are actively trying to promote cheaper alternatives such as low-cost editions, custom books and electronic books.

Recently, the issue has gone from university classrooms to the halls of Congress. After reports began to surface of a significant disparity between textbook costs in the United States and foreign countries, Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.), a member of the House Education Committee, called for the GAO to study the issue in March 2004.

Since the GAO report’s release, the congressman has proposed an amendment to the College Access and Opportunity Act of 2005 that lists specific recommendations to publishers. The bill is a part of the Higher Education Act, which is reauthorized every five years. A vote on the legislation is scheduled for September. The committee has also charged a Department of Education panel to further study the issue.

“The money just doesn’t go far enough anymore,” said Jillian Schone, spokeswoman for Wu. “We used to talk about it in terms of tuition, and now we’re talking about it with textbooks. Students are going without these books, and itisn’t something that sits well.”

Faculty members have also stepped into the fray. Last spring, a group of 700 math and physics professors from across the country successfully negotiated a 20 percent price drop with Thompson Learning on a popular math book after protesting superfluous new editions.

It is a strategy many advocates said they would like to see implemented more often. Some faculty members said publishers aren’t forthcoming about what new editions will cost their students and that they’d like to have more input.

“Publishers always like professors to choose a certain book,” said William Briscoe, a GW professor of physics. “Cost should be one of the factors, but that doesn’t come into discussions. We usually don’t know the cost of a book until we see what the bookstore is charging.”

But if publishers are voluntarily seeking to lower prices, activists said they’re not seeing the impact. In addition to nonbinding legislation, several said they’d like to see regulations on the industry’s ability to update texts and bundle materials.

In the meantime, many activists are attempting to work within the current market to make books more affordable. Online book-swapping sites have popped up at several schools, allowing students to trade or sell texts directly with one another. GW will soon join the trend with the Student Association’s new Web site, colonialtrader.com, which will host an online marketplace geared toward GW students.

The online commercial market for books has also risen steadily, challenging the dominance of campus bookstores. CampusBooks.com President Alex Neal estimates that about 5 to 10 percent of students buy some of their books online compared to just 2 percent in 1999, driving down retail prices.

Even as options expand, proponents of lower prices said it won’t be enough to cut into the rate of inflation. If costs are going to slow significantly, they said, the change will have to come from the source.

“Ultimately it’s the publishers’ game to win or lose,” Rosenfeld said. “There’s been an incredible amount of public spotlight on this problem, and the more that continues, it’s going to be something publishers will have to consider.”

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