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Schools, publishers experiment to cut textbook prices

E-books have potential to help, but some say they aren't the whole solution to cutting costs.

Staff Writer

Monday, March 10, 2008

At $900 on average per year, textbook expenses can account for 26 percent of tuition and fees for a full-time student attending a four-year public institution and 72 percent for a full-time student attending a two-year public institution, according to federal statistics.

Spurred by reports that textbook prices are rising faster than the rate of inflation, the U.S. House of Representatives has put some restrictions on publishers in its version of legislation reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the federal law that governs student aid.


The House legislation, which passed overwhelmingly in February and is called the College Opportunity and Affordability Act, would require publishers to "unbundle" materials such as CDs and workbooks that are often packaged with textbooks to raise the overall price.

The bill would also require publishers to disclose to faculty whether a new edition of the book is substantially different from the previous version, enabling faculty to choose the lower-cost older edition and save their students money. It also requires schools to notify students in advance which books are required for a course to give them as much time as possible to search for books from the cheapest supplier.

A senate version of the bill does not include the textbook provisions. The bill is currently with a joint conference committee, which will hammer out the differences in the bills.

Ohio is already experimenting with creative ways to cut textbook costs while making them more accessible to new learning styles.

"The governor and the legislature have placed a high priority on high quality, affordable education. We see lowering the cost of textbooks as an important part of this," said Ohio Board of Regents Chancellor Eric Fingerhut.

Two institutions, the University of Dayton and Miami University in Oxford, have spent the last two semesters using e-textbooks as an alternative to traditional textbooks. The students buy passcodes from their campus bookstores and connect to the textbooks through OhioLINK, the statewide network of 86 college and university libraries.

Dan Klco, a biology professor and Marianist brother at UD, opted to put two classes of the same introductory biology course through the experiment. One class paid $140 for a hardcover text, the other paid $71 for the e-text.

The books are not page-for-page replications of a hardcover book. They instead focus on using multimedia tools to teach course material. Short Web videos, animations and interactive quizzes better engage students who are accustomed to multitasking on the Internet, said David Wright, UD's director of curriculum innovation and e-learning, who is analyzing the pilot program.

"It bridges their social networking and Googling behavior to the older methods of teaching," Wright said.

At the end of the study, Wright and Klco found the students learned equally well with an e-textbook as they did with a traditional textbook.

Besides the state's pilot program, UD uses e-textbooks for another 20 courses ranging from chemistry to philosophy to business. Students save between $28 to $67 when buying the e-books instead of a new textbook.

Pros and cons

Faculty and publishers are still discovering the pros and cons of e-texts. The e-texts are easier to revise than printed books, because new information can be added almost instantly to a Web site, while a printed book requires a new edition. Publishers can also customize e-books for different learning styles, allowing more flexibility than printed texts.

Their biggest limitation, UD said, is that students can only access them for a limited time and aren't able to keep them for their personal reference library, like they might with hardcover books. Faculty also deal with their own learning curve, because they have to adjust their lectures to use the new interactive material, Klco said.

Students also can't sell the e-books back to the bookstore, something they do with traditional textbooks to recoup some of the cost of the book.

But while most students use the buyback system, a majority of the students in the pilot study said they would opt to buy an e-text if it was at least half the cost of a traditional textbook. But before that can happen, a few kinks need to be worked out.

"One of the reasons textbook prices are as high as they are is because there's a middle man in the market," Wright said. "It's difficult to figure out the mechanism for delivering e-texts to students, because it calls into question the role of the bookstore" and used books market.

Used books popular

Used books accounted for $1.7 billion in college store sales during the 2005-06 academic year, according to the National Association of College Stores, the trade association representing more than 3,100 college textbook stores.

With printed texts, publishers sell the book once to the store, which marks up the price, but receive no additional dollars when the book is sold again and again through the used book market. But with electronic texts, publishers sell them several times over the course of a school year, so publishers can afford to charge less than for a printed textbook.

The publisher's cost and mark-up makes up the lion's share of every dollar charged for a new text, about 64 cents, according to the NACS. The rest goes to a book's author (11.6 cents) and the remaining 24.1 cents goes to college stores, who glean about 4.4 percent in profit after paying operating and shipping costs.

"(The publishers) could definitely make a lot more money" with e-texts, Klco said.

But eliminating the college bookstore causes a problem for students who must buy their texts there because that's the only way their financial aid will pay for it. They can't shop on the Internet.

And college stores aren't sold yet on e-texts either.

The NACS does not have a position yet on digital texts. But in early February it said its own national study of 14,000 students about digital textbooks showed the majority of them, 72 percent, preferred a traditional textbook. Thirteen percent preferred electronic materials and 14 percent had no preference.

The trade group believes having a large supply of used textbooks available and asking publishers to allow faculty to purchase "unbundled" texts to keep new book costs down are good methods for making textbooks more affordable.

E-books have potential

Fingerhut thinks e-books have potential but aren't the whole solution to the textbook cost problem.

He envisions a mass purchasing program at the state level for negotiating prices on commonly used texts, electronic or printed, to give faculty the option of a cheaper book. As part of the 10-year master plan for the University System of Ohio, Fingerhut is pushing for a single technology infrastructure for linking all the state's colleges and universities.

Incorporating e-texts into that and using it to leverage buying power "is a market I think could really work," Fingerhut said. "The result is significant savings for students and schools."

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