Break the College Textbook Racket

PUBLISHED: February 8, 2012

My son's college textbook and work book for Spanish class cost $200, which in any language is un mal negocio (a bad deal).

Despite student petitions, digital options and congressional intervention, the tab for textbooks keeps growing in what is now an $8 billion industry. Prices are so high that some college students, as reported in USA TODAY, are trying to get by without purchasing the required books.

Why is something so fundamental as the price of a school book so difficult to control?

The College Board places the average annual cost of books at $1,168 per student. Efforts to reduce this staggering sum have led to marketing of used, rental and various forms of electronic books. But there are many hurdles, and the textbook situation is likely to get worse before it gets better.

Although college enrollment has increased in the past 10 years, textbook sales have been dropping. Not surprisingly, publishers and authors will do whatever they can to maintain profit levels. So, for example, as sales of used books have increased, prices for new books have climbed.

E-books cost less to produce than printed texts, yet they don't change the bottom line dramatically. For one thing, they are sold separately to each user, eliminating used books and shared copies. And they require hardware, which students or schools must purchase and maintain.

Some smaller publishers have begun offering "open-source" books, distributed online for free. These suppliers make their money by selling study aids and other supplements, but it is not clear whether such a model can succeed on a larger scale.

There are also indications that many students still prefer printed books. This is likely to change over time, but that means e-books must be introduced gradually.

College bookstores profit from sales, as do some professors who make students buy books they have written. Also, teachers seem too willing to require new, "revised" editions of textbooks, even though the changes could be minimal. In doing so, they wipe out the market for used copies.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act, which took effect at the start of the 2010 school year, included several provisions aimed at easing the cost of textbooks. For instance, colleges are required to identify all books for a course at the time of registration so students can evaluate the costs, and publishers must offer texts separately, rather than bundling them with CDs or workbooks.

A congressional advisory committee identified several factors that inflate prices. The most damaging is that the primary choosers of books are not the primary users; that is, teachers usually select the books, but students pay for them. Second, students often are resigned to hikes in prices because they are generally hostage to professors' selections. Interestingly, many European schools demand lower prices from publishers. The committee discovered that one popular economics textbook cost $126 in the U.S. but $76 in Great Britain.

A good first step in controlling college book costs would be for schools to comply with the law. Another would be for administrators to insist that teachers avoid ordering new editions that offer only cosmetic changes.

Ultimately, wider use of electronic formats will loosen the grip of a few large publishing companies, leading to greater competition and presumably lower prices. Meanwhile, colleges and universities should wake up to the fact that the best way to avoid having $200 books is to stop requiring students to buy them. A new chapter in textbook pricing can't be written quickly enough.

© Peter Funt. This column originally appeared in USA Today.

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