A recent study of syllabi in West Coast colleges indicates that the average student parts with a whopping $900 every year due to the cost of textbooks. To many students at Harvard, this figure probably seems like a rather low estimate. But an encouraging movement underway—which has picked up support from several members of Congress—may soon lead to reform.
The Student Public Interest Research Group in Oregon and California spearheaded the study, which examined the most widely assigned books in the fall of 2003 at 10 public colleges in Oregon and California. This heroic work has since drawn the attention of 15 members of congress, who in turn recently asked the General Accounting Office to investigate U.S. publishing practices.
Beyond simply highlighting the suspiciously skyrocketing cost, the study made other discoveries about textbook publishing which could spur further congressional scrutiny. Publishers are increasingly bundling new textbooks with extras like CD-ROMs, for which students inevitably shell out additional money even when they are not germane to the course curricula. Such is the case, for example, with the text for Harvard’s Chemistry 5 and 7—Petrucci, Harwood and Herring’s eighth edition of General Chemistry—whose list price is $132.
And some textbooks appear in new editions exceedingly often, a fleecing strategy which raises prices while curbing the market for used books. The Social Analysis 10 text, Principles of Economics by Allie S. Freed Professor of Economics N. Gregory Mankiw, has emerged this year in its third edition since it was first published six years ago, at a list price of $121. While some fields certainly evolve rapidly enough to justify frequent revisions, more than half of the professors in the California and Oregon study believed new editions were “rarely” or “never” justified. Unless publishing companies provide appropriate explanations, students will continue to suspect they are being swindled.
And in fact, it seems major textbook publishers are doing just that—at least when you compare the prices they charge in U.S. markets compared to overseas in Europe and Asia. Students at American colleges are more willing and able to pay for expensive textbooks, perhaps influenced by the fact that financial aid packages at many schools such as Harvard account for textbooks in its costs. Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 1998 that re-importation of American textbooks no longer violates federal copyright law, entrepreneurial students have garnered major savings by ordering their books from the European branches of major online distributors—www.amazon.co.uk is a prime example—and from other foreign distributors who are able to obtain the books at significantly lower prices. Many have also made profits by selling these discounted books to their fellow students at reduced cost. (New copies of Mankiw’s book are available online from www.amazon.co.uk for just £33—or roughly half the list price).
Should the congressional inquiry reveal publishing irregularities such as price fixing—which is not difficult to imagine—Congress must respond with several concrete proposals to ease the burdens on students. First, it should mandate that textbooks with expensive multimedia supplements be made available without these burdensome add-ons, sparing many customers the cost of a service they don’t use. Second, lawmakers should institute mechanisms for ensuring accountability in publishers’ decisions to issue new editions of the same textbook. In the case of these and other rules developed in response to the impending investigation, Congress should also designate suitable penalties and means of enforcement to keep the publishing industry in check.
The students who instigated the study in California and Oregon have begun a fine mission which Congress should now lead to a happy conclusion for students everywhere. Legislators should seize the opportunity to eliminate any undue financial drains associated with the desire to learn. Textbook sales should be governed by student needs first—and profits second.
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