Staff Editorial: Fight textbook costs

As college students prepare to return for another year of school, disproportionately high textbook costs remain a pertinent issue for higher education. While a number of studies have blamed publishers for driving up costs of books for several years, little has been done to reverse this trend for America’s college students.

Last January, this page discussed a State Public Interest Research Group report that found that American textbooks cost, on average, 20 percent more than textbooks in the United Kingdom. A 2005 Government Accountability Office study found that the price of classroom materials increased at twice the rate of inflation over the past 20 years.

Recent studies have echoed those and similar findings. The Student Public Interest Research Groups, a union of campus advocacy organizations, released a report this month that blamed publishers for releasing frequent new editions and extraneous CD-ROMs, both of which they said contributed to higher costs. Adding to the growing public cognizance of this issue, Congress called on a federal advisory panel to investigate high textbook prices. The panel, whose hearings begin next month, will release its results in May.

While the federal government has only investigated the issue, some states have taken the matter into their own hands. Virginia now mandates that professors must acknowledge textbook prices in writing, and proposals in New York and Maryland would eliminate state sales tax on textbooks. These local measures may be a step in the right direction, but they will do little in the short term to alleviate the financial burden students paying for books.

Though any permanent solution to this issue seems long-term, there are several steps that students, faculty and administrators might consider in order to confront high textbook costs. Some students already purchase their books through online retailers offering books at significantly reduced prices compared to the GW Bookstore. However, a number of buyers remain unaware of the savings from such services. Additionally, online vendors will often buy books back at higher prices than the GW Bookstore, allowing students to recuperate some of their initial investment.

Part of the answer may also lie with GW’s faculty. Professors are sometimes unaware of the steep costs of the readings they assign for class. Some faculty members may also list a copious amount of books on a syllabus, only to pick a few selected readings from each of the publications. These professors should consider seeking the readings or ones similar to them online, offering them to students via Blackboard.

GW provides excellent technological resources to students and faculty alike, but it often seems that some of the faculty is unaware or unable to use the available technology. If a professor uploads only a syllabus or class description to Blackboard, the significant investment GW made in this technology goes to waste.

It is also important that administrators acknowledge that some faculty members are still not using online resources in place of costly printed materials. Though faculty members are already trained to use technological systems for classroom use, increased communication on the possible benefits and savings from computer-based learning aids would benefit students in their quest to save money on books.

It is clear that textbook prices are, at times, unreasonably high; especially when they are compared to similar editions overseas. But so long as little significant action is taken on the issue, individuals on campus must take the initiative to reduce the burden. Through cooperative efforts, students, faculty and administrators may be able to provide a strong case addressing the need for more affordable texts – a case that can help turn the current federal study into future action.

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