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Swelling Textbook Costs Have College Students Saying 'Pass'

Sharline Bland, 33, has a long register receipt to account for the $260 she spent on textbooks for the spring. Textbook prices almost tripled from 1986 to 2004, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office.
Sharline Bland, 33, has a long register receipt to account for the $260 she spent on textbooks for the spring. Textbook prices almost tripled from 1986 to 2004, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 23, 2006

A line twisted through the aisles of the bookstore at the University of the District of Columbia, students pushing their heavy baskets full of textbooks along with their feet, some adding up the prices in their heads as they waited.

"Whooooo, it's bad," said Kisha Warren, who's studying art at UDC. "A lot of people don't buy the books," she said, because they're too expensive.

As students come back to campus and get their spring semester assignments, many will pause in the bookstore and make a choice. They can buy everything on the syllabus -- or take a chance.

Sometimes the math is easy: $189.75 for a thick text on principles of management? No thanks.

Textbook prices have been rising at double the rate of inflation for the past two decades, according to a Government Accountability Office study. In Virginia, more than 40 percent of students surveyed by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia said they sometimes just do without.

That's been increasing, said Jennifer Libertowski of the National Association of College Stores; recently, the group found that nearly 60 percent of students nationwide choose not to buy all the course materials.

For those whose parents are writing $40,000-plus tuition checks every year and covering rent for a D.C. apartment, a few books might not seem like a big deal. But for students working to pay for school or for those whose parents sweat every increase in tuition, book prices can be a nasty surprise -- one more thing putting college out of reach.

Students at four-year schools spent, on average, about $900 for books and supplies in 2003-04, more than a quarter of the cost of tuition and fees. At community colleges, the GAO study found, the books amounted to almost three-quarters of the cost.

Because many undergraduates get federal financial aid, the overall cost of college is a concern to Congress, which sought the study.

Textbook prices almost tripled from 1986 to 2004, the GAO report this summer found, in large part because of the increasing cost of developing the things that now often come with the books, such as CD-ROMs, Web sites and workbooks. And publishers revise texts more quickly than they used to, limiting the used-book market.

Every time Warren, 28, buys something for school, she feels as if she's taking away from her two children at home in Southeast Washington. Then, when she sees their reaction to the drawings and paintings she brings home from UDC, she's all the more sure she has to keep studying: She wants to teach art in city public schools one day. Her 9-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son don't get those kinds of opportunities, she said.

Her urban studies book, which cost about $40, was no problem. But she had to draw the line at a $195 book on design. "I thought that was ridiculous," she said.


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