Textbook prices add costs to students

UNC-Chapel Hill freshman Austin Fowler spent about $500 this semester on textbooks. His classmate Andrew Wein spent about $400.

“On top of that, Student Stores didn’t have a CD I needed,” Wein said. “They only had used copies, which don’t work because they are made so that they can only be activated once.”

Students like Fowler and Wein are experiencing a growing national problem. A 2005 report by the Government Accountability Office found that “college textbook prices have risen at double the rate of inflation for the last two decades.”

During the 2003-04 school year, “first-time, full-time students paying in-state tuition at 4-year public colleges or universities were estimated to spend 26 percent of the cost of tuition and fees on books and supplies, or $898,” the report states. During the same period, “2-year public colleges estimated that their first-time, full-time students would spend about $886.”

What are the reasons for these rising prices? The report claims that bundling, a process by which a textbook is “only available at the bookstore in combination with some other course material” is one possible cause. Fowler, for example, spent $150 on a bundle of materials for an introductory Italian class.

Another part of the problem is that professors sometimes change books unnecessarily or do not assign the least expensive textbook. Oftentimes faculty are encouraged to do this by publishers that offer incentives, such as bonus materials, for using a particular book.

“I don’t know of specific professors being influenced by incentives,” said John Jones, director of UNC-Chapel Hill Student Stores. “But professors will admit that it goes on. Mostly departmental incentives in the form of study aids.”

In February, in an effort to curb rising textbook costs in the UNC system, the Board of Governors issued recommendations for ways individual campuses could cut textbook costs. One of the recommendations was for each campus to set deadlines for faculty to order books early, enabling bookstores to get discounts and lower shipping costs. The BOG also considered exploring a system-wide UNC buyback consortium, which would allow the selling of used books between the 16 universities.

President Erskine Bowles urged schools to study the possibility of a textbook rental program such as the one used at Appalachian State University where students pay on average $209 per year for textbooks. However, rental programs have not proven to be the perfect solution.

“The rental program has shown statistically to save students money,” said Glenn Ellen Stilling, chairwoman of the Appalachian State University Bookstore Committee. “But it does limit the faculty’s ability to choose.”

In December 2004, the Appalachian State faculty senate passed a resolution to abolish the rental program. To address faculty concerns, the University Bookstore Committee was established and asked to study the rental program and come up with recommendations that would maximize faculty flexibility while continuing to save students money.

In February 2006, the committee released a report recommending that the rental program continue with a few changes. For example, the committee recommended that individual instructors choose the books they will use. In the past, departments and committees chose the books instructors were allowed to use in their courses. According to the report, this was one of the main reasons the faculty senate wanted to abolish the rental program.

The effectiveness of rental programs in keeping costs down has also been questioned.

“Some studies have shown that the amount a rental program saves students is not going to be less than a buyback program,” Jones said.

As part of their annual tuition requests to the BOG, each school must analyze whether a textbook rental program would work on their campus. Regardless of their conclusions, the BOG expects that individual campuses will make some progress.

In February, Bowles said that if he did not see some progress on curbing textbook prices, the BOG would need to consider creating requirements for the UNC system campuses rather than recommendations.

This resolve on the part of Bowles offers some hope to UNC students trying to protect their wallets. Even with the UNC president pressing for change, however, it’s hard to see how this substantial cost can be reduced very much as long as publishers keep turning out expensive new editions and professors keep adopting them, even though the changes are usually just cosmetic. Perhaps Bowles should turn his efforts toward creating incentives for professors to economize on the cost of instructional materials for their students. Professors have never had much reason to think about the cost of books, but the future doesn’t have to be like the past.