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Lowering a hidden cost of higher education: textbooks

Thursday, February 7, 2008

TUITION isn't the only expense keeping many recent college graduates insolvent. Textbooks are also to blame.

Textbook prices have been rising rapidly in recent decades, increasing at more than 2 1/2 times the rate of inflation from 1986 to 2004, according to a Government Accountability Office report. At the University of Maryland at College Park, the average student spends more than $1,000 a year on textbooks -- equal to about 20 percent of tuition, according to the Maryland Public Interest Research Group.

There are several reasons that textbooks are so costly. For one, even though there have been no major advances in fields such as calculus and elementary physics in decades or even centuries, publishers still churn out new editions of textbooks on these subjects every three or four years. The changes are typically superficial, but they prevent students from being able to purchase used, older editions. Publishers also frequently bundle unwanted additional materials such as CD-ROMs and study guides with textbooks. Professors rarely assign these extra materials, which drive up costs, and students often cannot sell the books back to bookstores once the shrink-wrap has been removed. Publishers can get away with these shenanigans because there's a fundamental disconnect in the textbook marketplace: The people paying for the books (the students) are not the ones choosing them (the teachers).

Several state lawmakers in Maryland have recently introduced bills to correct this market failure. Their legislation is well-intentioned but deeply flawed, and some provisions threaten to curtail professors' academic freedom. Better ways to reduce costs while allowing professors to use their best judgment in designing curricula are included in a broader bill on higher education that is up for a floor vote today in the U.S. House of Representatives. That bill would require publishers to disclose pricing in any promotional materials they send to professors, thereby injecting a consciousness of cost into professors' choices. It also would require publishers to sell unbundled versions of their products and to disclose these packaging options and revision histories in all materials sent to professors. Finally, it would push faculty members to list required course materials before courses start, so that students could shop around.

Other proposals for lowering textbook prices include school-run textbook rental programs and the assignment of online, open-source textbooks. While these plans have potential, they are best left up to individual institutions. On a regulatory level, the best that lawmakers can do is to ensure that both students and professors are able to make informed choices.

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