Textbooks Too Much, Study Says

The textbook industry is unnecessarily gouging the wallets of college students, according to a report released yesterday by the Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group. The report found that college students spend an average of $898 per academic year on textbooks. The report, entitled “Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbooks Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks” complements recent legislation sponsored by Democratic Oregon Rep. David Wu to investigate the textbook industry’s pricing practices. In addition to finding students’ textbook costs hovering around $900, up from an average cost of approximately $650 in 1996-97, the study found the average textbook now runs a price tag of over $100. “Price gouging in any form is unacceptable, but it is particularly outrageous when it cheats students,” Wu said. Erin Fifield, who is working with OSPIRG in Portland this term, helped research for the report and coordinated yesterday’s press conference at Portland State University. She stressed three recent trends in the textbook industry that have contributed to the excessive pricing: mandatory extras, frequent new editions and mark-ups for textbooks sold in the United States. Half of all textbooks now come “bundled,” meaning they are packaged with additional instructional materials such as CD-ROMs and workbooks. Students are rarely given the option of buying the textbook “a la carte.” Moreover, as is the case with many student textbook purchases in Hanover at Wheelock Books, these shrink-wrapped packages are rarely allowed to be returned if opened. “A lot of times you get a CD that comes with your textbook that your professor doesn’t use,” Fifield said. “Most people don’t think about it, but if they knew they were paying more for it they might think more about it.” The report, which was based primarily from statistics from colleges in California and Oregon, claimed that 65 percent of faculty “rarely” or “never” used the bundled materials in their courses. A second finding of the report was that textbook publishers release new editions of their texts frequently — often with very few, or only minor, content changes — making the less expensive, used textbooks obsolete and unavailable. “Many of the new editions we looked at didn’t contain significant changes” Fifield said, “especially not significant enough to warrant a new edition.” One math book used at Dartmouth College, “Calculus: Early Transcendentals,” is guilty of just that, according to Fifield, in addition to “bundling” with a CD-ROM. The only change between the current edition and the previous one is a change in the practice problems throughout the book, Fifield said. The report found that 40 percent of faculty report that the new editions are “rarely” to “never” justified. Perhaps most detrimental to student’s wallets is the fact that new editions make it impossible to get away with purchasing a used book. According to the report, an overwhelming majority of faculty members — 87 percent — supported including new information in a supplement instead of producing a new textbook edition. Finally, the report found that textbooks are significantly more expensive in the United States. Even textbooks that are sold in duplicate forms in other countries were found to be much cheaper abroad. The same calculus book that costs $135.95 in the US on amazon.com, costs just $68.38 (37 British pounds) on the United Kingdom’s amazon affiliate. This discrepancy is one of the focal points of Wu’s bill, which directs the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to determine why there is such a large gap between what American college students and overseas students pay for identical textbooks.