February 02, 2004

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CalPIRG reports textbook rip-off
Average student spends $898 per year, study says

Staff Writer

The average UC student will spend nearly $900 on textbooks in 2003-04, according to a study released by California Student Public Interest Research Group on Jan. 29.

The report, "Rip-off 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks," reveals methods that textbook publishers use to raise prices. It makes policy suggestions to reduce textbook costs for students.

"It's the most comprehensive report of its kind," UCSD CalPIRG co-chair Matthew Reents said.

During fall quarter of 2003, CalPIRG conducted a survey of 521 students at seven University of California campuses and interviewed 156 faculty members at nine public universities and one community college. The investigation comprised of 33 pairs of different editions of the five most widely assigned college textbooks at each of the campuses surveyed.

According to the report, students will spend an average of $898 on textbooks for the 2003-04 academic year, which is equal to nearly 20 percent of the tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges. According to statistics from the UC Office of the President, students' textbook costs have increased by 24 percent since 1996-97.

"I think there is definitely a consensus that buying books is totally insane," Eleanor Roosevelt College sophomore Sarah Piazza said, Piazza said rising prices forced her to share books and to use the library for class readings.

The report claims that publishing companies use various practices to increase textbook costs. For example, half of all texts now come "bundled" with additional instructional materials such as CD-ROMs and supplemental workbooks. The report found the practice of bundling books with other materials increased by 21 percent between consecutive editions of the books surveyed. The number of bundled items increased by nearly 50 percent.

Sixty-five percent of the faculty surveyed said they rarely use these materials for their courses.

A chemistry textbook for a UC Santa Barbara course published by Pearson Education was the only book surveyed that was available both bundled and unbundled. In this case, the bundled version was more than twice as expensive as the unbundled version.

Publishers release new editions of textbooks on an average of every three to four years. These new editions contain very few content changes, according to the report. For example, a comparison of the 2003 and 1999 editions of "Calculus: Early Transcendentals" published by Thomson Learning reveals that the only changes were several new math problems, rearrangement and consolidation of chapters, and an added CD-ROM and workbook. The average price for the new edition is $130, while a used copy of the older edition sells for anywhere between $20 to $90.

According to UCSD mathematics professor Gaemus Collins, the frequency of new editions of math textbooks is unnecessary.

"Calculus is an old field it hasn't changed for over 100 years," Collins said. "Although the methodology for calculus does change, it can't justify new editions every four years."

Of the faculty surveyed, 76 percent reported that new textbook editions are justified "never" to "half the time" justified. Moreover, when publishers release new editions, older versions are forced off the markets, making cheaper used textbooks unavailable. Of the surveyed students, 59 percent who searched for a used book in fall of 2003 were unable to find even one used text for any of their classes.

"It's appalling that at a time when students are contending with rapidly rising college costs, textbook publishers are playing games to increase textbook prices," Reents said.

CalPIRG is also concerned over the price differences between the same textbooks sold in the United States and overseas. For example, the cost of the fifth edition of "Calculus: Early Transcendentals" for students in the United States is $122. In comparison, the cost of the same book for Canadian students is $96, and the cost for British students is $59.

"The most glaring problem I see is the [price] differential between U.S. and overseas versions," Collins said.

According to Jeremy Cogan, A.S. commissioner of enterprise operations, the CalPIRG report emphasizes that rising textbook costs are not due to students, faculty or even administration, but to problems within the publishing industry.

"The report confirmed a lot of suspicions I had as an individual, and I think that a lot of students on this campus believe that their problems are individual problems," Cogan said. "They really don't believe that their problems are part of a larger problem in general it's part of a problematic structure in the publishing industry that students have no control over."

The report makes several policy recommendations to address the issue of textbook prices. Among the suggestions is that publishers should work to keep the cost of their books as low as possible, and should offer texts in both bundled and unbundled versions. It suggested that publishers should also inform faculty about all text options, costs, shelf life, and the differences between subsequent editions of the same textbooks. It also recommends using paper or online supplements to current editions, instead of publishing completely new editions.

The report further suggests that colleges set up programs for students to share, buy and sell books. CalPIRG has set up its own nonprofit online bookswap at http://www.campusbookswap.com. Cogan said A.S. is also working on a partnership with booksoncampus.com to provide a site where students can purchase and sell books for a small transaction fee. According to Cogan, the advantage of the site is that there are no shipping charges, since students can arrange to meet on campus to exchange books.

"It's the first time in about 14 years that any attempt has been done by the Associated Students to start a new, entrepreneurial business relationship," Cogan said.

Legislators nationwide are also getting involved with the issue. Rep. David Wu (D-Ore.) and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) have both introduced legislation to investigate the practices of the publishing industry in their respective states. In California, Carol Liu, chair of the California Assembly of Higher Education Subcommittee, is also scheduled to introduce legislation.

"I want to thank CalPIRG for educating the public about the high price of college textbooks and I look forward to continuing the fight on behalf of our students to make college more affordable for families," Wu said.

Courtesy of David Ung

Book bind: CalPIRG co-chair Matthew Reents releases a textbook pricing report at Student Center on Jan. 29.

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