U-Md. System Aims To Cut Textbook Costs

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 2009

As part of an effort to make college more affordable, higher-education leaders in Maryland are trying to keep textbook prices down.

The Board of Regents of the University System of Maryland unanimously approved guidelines Friday to make it easier for students to search for cheaper books.

"This is a real victory for students," said Josh Michael, a junior at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and a student regent.

When Michael started college, he said, he spent almost $500 on books for his first four courses. He bought everything his professors suggested, then discovered as the semester went on that he didn't really need extra Spanish workbooks and study guides.

Textbook prices have risen far more quickly than inflation. One reason, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office study conducted several years ago, is that they often come with lots of extras, such as CDs. Publishers say such features help students learn, but they often go unused.

With tuition frozen at Maryland public universities for the past three years and Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) recommending that the cap be maintained for the next budget year, textbooks have become a target for cost-cutting.

"Textbooks are a huge part of the cost of higher education," said state Sen. James C. Rosapepe (D-Prince George's). "At the University of Maryland, textbooks can cost 10 to 20 percent of the cost of attending classes. At community colleges, prices can be as much as a third of the cost of attending college. You can't have affordable college without lower textbook prices."

That has been Michael's priority. "It's the biggest piece of low-hanging fruit in terms of affordability. It's where we can make immediate, substantive impact."

He and David Nevins, a regent, and P.J. Hogan, a lobbyist for the university system, pushed for a forum at the University of Maryland last fall that featured talks among bookstore owners, publishers, faculty members and students. They discussed the reasons for high textbook prices and devised ways to bring about change.

The resulting 10 guidelines were passed unanimously last week. The regents' policy asks schools to post a number that identifies textbooks required by professors on the college's Web site by a certain deadline each semester. The number allows students to search online for cheaper copies.

"That will help create a competitive marketplace," Nevins said. "Student bookstores will have to be competitively priced, or students will go elsewhere."

The deadline means that not only will students be able to search for bargains, but they can also recoup money by selling their books at the end of each semester. Many campus bookstores will pay half of the retail cost for a used book if they know a professor is planning to require it the next semester. If they don't know whether they can probably sell it, they pay 10 percent.


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