Lawmakers Study Ways To Cut Cost Of Textbooks

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Maryland lawmakers voiced support yesterday for legislation to control the escalating costs of college textbooks, including a measure that would prohibit public university employees from taking benefits from publishers in exchange for assigning particular books.

Several bills that would affect the college textbook industry are moving through the state legislature at a time when students across the nation are complaining about textbook prices. Although no votes have been cast, the bills appear to be gaining broad bipartisan support. Meanwhile, the influential House Ways and Means Committee is preparing its own comprehensive bill on the subject.

Drawing particular scrutiny are agreements between bookstores and universities under which, lawmakers allege, both parties profit from the sales of books students are required to buy for their classes.

Barnes and Noble operates the official campus bookstore at the University of Maryland campus in College Park. The store is authorized to sell textbooks for as much as 25 percent above the wholesale price, and the bookstore pays the university between 10 and 14 percent of gross sales, according to the terms of the operating contract.

"They're trying to make a profit," Del. Marvin E. Holmes Jr. (D-Prince George's) said. "My concern is the students. How can we find a way for students to buy the books to serve the purpose of their classes as cheap as possible?"

Holmes's bill, the Textbook Fairness Act, was the subject of a hearing yesterday in the House Appropriations Committee. Holmes said he became concerned about the cost of textbooks last spring when he enrolled in a law course at the University of Baltimore.

A study released by the federal Government Accountability Office in 2005 said that textbook prices nationally rose at twice the rate of inflation between December 1986 and December 2004, in part because of the bundling of CDs and other supplemental materials. Books on biology, chemistry and other scientific subjects often sell for $200 or more, an independent bookseller told lawmakers yesterday.

Patricia Kosco Cossard, legislative affairs chair of Maryland's Council of University System Faculty, said the money received by the university helps fund student services.

"If we were properly funded by the state, there would be no need to augment our income by other means," Cossard said.

Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) has introduced a bill similar to Holmes's. Klausmeier said the prices of books are "out of whack." She said "it gives you pause" when retailers and publishers profit off students who need textbooks for their courses.

The Ways and Means Committee is preparing a third bill that would address the textbook issue comprehensively, Del. Craig L. Rice (D-Montgomery), a committee member, said.

"The textbook cost has become an absolute burden for students," Rice said, calling it the "hidden cost of tuition."

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