Monday, April 12, 2004

New Study Shows College Textbook Prices Are Too High

Yeah, I know, anyone who has been in college already knows the scam the college textbook publishing industry has been pulling on students over the years. But, the studies have to be done anyway, because there are always those who won't believe a thing until there's been a study done on it. So, fine, study away, confirm what we already know. What amazes me is that there are still people out there who will try and defend their actions.

The results of the study conducted by the California Student Public Interest Research Group, Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group and the OSPIRG Foundation show that students will spend an average of $898 per year on textbooks in 2003-04, approximately 20 percent of the average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges nationwide and over 33% more than the average amount spent on textbooks in 1997.

This drastic increase is mostly attributed to the new "bonus features" that publishers include with the textbooks -- like CD ROMS. Problem is, there is rarely an option to buy the textbook without the "bonus features," and, as the study shows, most professors never even use these "bonus features" (Sixty-five percent of faculty "rarely" or "never" use the bundled materials in their courses. "In the one instance that a textbook was available both bundled and unbundled (only the textbook), the bundled version was more than twice as expensive as the unbundled version of the same textbook." So, most students are paying about twice as much for things they will never use.

The other problem the study found was the publishing companies constantly putting out new editions (on average, every 3 years) making older, cheaper, used textbooks obsolete and unavailable. Now, certainly, there are certain topics that require constant updates and revisions. No one wants to use a genetics textbook or a computer programming textbook published 10 years ago. But when you're talking about Calculus, English Lit, 18th Century British History, etc., the new editions are rarely justified -- certainly not every 3 years. In fact, the study found that 76 percent of faculty report that the new editions they use are justified "never" to "half the time" and 40 percent of faculty report that the new editions are "rarely" to "never" justified.
"Calculus hasn't changed much since Isaac Newton. The question needs to be asked -- do we really need a new edition every few years?" said U.S. Rep. David Wu, an Oregon Democrat who was the first lawmaker to ask for the investigation last fall.
Of course, those in the publishing industry have a different opinion.
Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers and a former congresswoman, said the report was one-sided and flawed.

Textbook publishers say the students' recommendations, which include a five-year minimum before the release of a new edition, fail to take the need for updates into account.

"Imagine a government textbook that had Bill Clinton as president. Or an accounting textbook that didn't include Enron. Or a biology textbook that didn't have cloning or stem cell research. The world changes so fast," said Jessica Dee Rohm, spokeswoman for Thomson Learning, the Stamford, Conn.-based textbook giant.

Publishers say that even if the subject is calculus or art history, and by nature doesn't change as radically as genetics, the revised editions are always different.

"We have a revision diary that's hundreds of pages long for that book -- we invested $300,000 of research to change it," said Rohm, referring to the Calculus 101 book that Connolly held up at a news conference in Portland on Wednesday.
Now, as I said, I do think there are some subject areas where new editions of textbooks are far more justified. Hell, if there's been some new research in Calculus, fine, put out a new edition. But, really, that's going to happen how often? Certainly not every 3 years, and certainly not so much that other solutions can't be used -- like including new information in a supplement instead of producing a new textbook edition (a solution 87% of faculty members surveyed supported).

Anyone who has been a student knows that most times the new editions are simply old books with chapters rearranged, or questions at the end of chapters changed. No new information. And sure, there are ways to get around the buying of a new edition -- like buying a used older edition and getting the problems assigned for homework from someone who has the new edition. But is this something we should be expecting students to have to do? I think not.

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