While visiting the KSL Channel 5 website today, I spotted, out of the corner of my eye, a cryptic reference to $200 textbooks by talk show host Doug Wright on Twitter. No additional details were provided.
Obviously, I couldn't pass this up, since the idea of a college student being forced to spend $200 on a single textbook is utterly outrageous. So I hit the research trail to find out more about this problem. This first led me to an April 10th, 2008 post by the New York Times editorial board. While a bit dated, the information is still relevant. They revealed an organized campaign to bring down the prices of textbooks, further described on the MakeTextbooksAffordable.org website. But the Times also believes Congressional action is called for, and was promoting a U.S. House measure on textbooks pushed by two California Congressmen– Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, a Republican, and Rep. George Miller, a Democrat. The textbook provisions — contained in House bill H.R. 4137 (Section 112) levied the following requirements:
(1). Require publishers to tell faculty how much their choices for textbooks will really cost the students.
(2). Require publishers to “unbundle” textbooks (too many texts now come shrinkwrapped with CDs and other extras, driving up the cost).
(3). Require schools to post the list of required and recommended books long before students need to buy them.
H.R. 4137 was passed on February 7th, 2008. Rob Bishop and Jim Matheson voted Yes, while then-Rep. Chris Cannon voted No. After U.S. Senate concurrence, President George W. Bush signed it on August 14th, 2008, and became Public Law No. 110-315.
Menawhile, market-based solutions have emerged. On August 13th, 2009, KSL aired a story about Alan Martin, a Weber State University graduate who founded a textbook rental business. The business website is located at CampusBookRentals.com, and the headquarters is physically located in Ogden, Utah. This is a serious endeavor; there are two million book titles in their system.
Here's how it works. Students order the books online, and Martin's customer service team then processes the orders and sends them out as fast as possible. The requested book is accompanied by a prepaid mailer to encourage and facilitate return, much like Netflix does with movies.
In the first six months of operation, CampusBookRentals.com was serving students primarily in Utah. But word of mouth spread, and now orders are coming in from 4,000 campuses and thousands of students from across the country. Martin estimates they spend 20 hours per day filling orders prior to the beginning of a typical fall semester. And Martin explained the benefits to customers. "Students come to the website and they can save at least 50 to 60 percent all the time, that's consistent. Sometimes up to 85 percent," Martin said. "Use the book for as long as you need it and give it back to us, let us rent it to another student; keeps the money in their pocket upfront."
But Alan Martin is hardly one-of-a-kind. A follow-up AP story posted by KSL on August 14th identifies some other enterpreneurs around the country also offering textbook rentals.
A list of reasons why the prices of textbooks are so high is given on About.com. They include
* Sheer number of books required - Compared to high school, a semester of college uses a lot more books. You'll have longer reading assignments and many courses will assign readings from more than one book.
* Copyright - The publishers of large anthologies of recent writings need to pay copyright fees to every author in the book. A poetry anthology for a literature class, for example, may involve clearing hundreds of copyrights.
* Highly specialized material - Many college textbooks are highly specialized and the material is unavailable in any other book. The low volume of published books and the lack of market competition drive publishers to jack up prices.
* Online companions - Many textbooks are complimented by online resources. The subscription fee is built in to the cost of the book.
* Supplies - For art, lab and science classes, the estimated cost of books often includes supplies, lab necessities and calculators
* Lack of used textbooks - Publishers make no money when too many used books are in circulation. As a consequence, they will often release new editions every few years in order to make the used books obsolete.
* Review and desk copies - Book publishers make money only when college professors adopt their books. This often means that they send free review copies to potential instructors. The cost of this practice is offset by the high price students pay for books.
* Faculty control - In high school, the choice of books if often decided by a department or committee. Price and negotiations with publishers may be part of this process. In college, individual faculty members usually have complete control over their choice of books. Not all professors are sensitive to cost, and some will even assign expensive books they authored themselves (sometimes collecting royalties in the process).
Alan Martin at least tries to solve one of those problems by increasing the supply of used textbooks. And that's a start.