Lawmakers tackle textbook prices

Both local and national lawmakers are proposing new plans to control the cost of textbooks in response to rising concern from parents and students about the affordability of higher education supplies.

A number of bills have been brought before Congress and local legislatures in an effort to limit textbook prices. Textbook prices have risen at double the rate of inflation during the past two decades, and almost triple this rate between 1986 and 2004, according to a Government Accountability Office study.

Most of the bills address the same points and suggest ways to help students purchase books at a more reasonable cost. Some ideas include packaging textbooks and supplemental multimedia resources separately, and making sure students can always purchase used books.

Congress passed the College Opportunity and Affordability Act early this month by on overwhelming majority vote of 354 to 58. The act promotes textbook affordability at a national level and has also influenced state interest in textbook affordability.

Maryland State Delegate Craig Rice, of the state’s ways and means committee, helped write a bill called the College Textbook Competition and Affordability Act of 2008. Craig said the purpose of the bill was to restructure the way students purchase their textbooks and to call upon professors to select books with affordability in mind.

“Our thought was if you’re a faculty or administrator and you’re requiring a book to your students, you need to make sure that this book you’re requiring to them … that you’re using that book,” Rice said.

The accountability office study suggests that bundling textbooks and supplemental materials, such as CD-ROMs, are a main reason why book prices have become so high. As part of his bill, Rice suggests bookstores sell textbooks and their supplemental material separately. This solution allows students to decide what they want to purchase.

“You should only request a bundle if you’re planning on using all materials in that bundle,” Rice said. “If you’re not going to use it there’s just no point in requiring it. Leave it up to the students if they want to purchase additional materials.”

Professors requiring students to purchse the most up-to-date, and often the most expensive, versions of texbooks is another common problem.

Charles Schmidt, a spokesperson for the National Association of College Stores, said it is not the bookstore’s fault that prices are so high. Instead, it is a combination of the publishers and the lack of communication between the faculty and students.

Schmidt said the bookstore buy-back programs, which allows students to re-sell their old books for cash, is meant to help students out, but is also dependent on professors to assign books quickly at the beginning of the semester.

“The sooner (professors) find out they’re going to need X amount of Y book, the more (bookstores) can offer students (trying to sell back that book),” Schmidt said. “The longer it takes, the more uncertainty there is and just like any business (bookstores) students to re-sell their old books for cash, is meant to help students out, but is also dependent on professors to assign books quickly at the beginning of the semester.

“The sooner (professors) find out they’re going to need X amount of Y book, the more (bookstores) can offer students (trying to sell back that book),” Schmidt said. “The longer it takes, the more uncertainty there is and just like any business (bookstores) don’t want to have inventory they can’t sell so they have to hedge their bets a little.”

The mandatory displaying of ISBN numbers on store websites and in listings of college classes has also been suggested as a way for students to get books for a lower price. By having the ISBN number, which is unique for each edition of a textbook, students can shop around at a variety of sources and find the right book for the cheapest price.

“For that student that’s on a budget, that doesn’t have a lot of money, allow that student to shop around and find the book at the cheapest price possible,” Rice said.

The NACS, of which the GW bookstore is a member, has proposed a solution that it feels would solve many of the problems. If colleges and universities formed committees consisting of representatives from the college bookstore, the administration, the faculty and the students, then the problem of miscommunication would be solved and other problems could be fixed from there.

Rice said, “By doing that it will improve communication between all affected parties and it usually … lowers the prices and improves used book markets on campus.”

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