Textbook prices continue to rise, burden students

Last fall as a freshman, Aerospace Engineering major David Trawick got his first taste of sticker shock: a $700 bill for textbooks, followed by another $450 bill in the spring.

“I didn’t expect to pay quite that much,” he said. His HOPE scholarship’s textbook allowance helped, but “I think they’re kidding themselves when they ask me to pay for an entire semester’s worth of books with $150,” Trawick said.

He’s not the only one balking at high prices. Fourth-year Biology major Sophia Fisher regularly drops $600 to $700 a year on books, even though she tries to borrow them from friends to cut down on spending. “Books are overpriced. If they were two-thirds of the price they are now, I’d feel more comfortable buying them,” Fisher said.

It’s not just Tech students feeling the textbook pinch. The U.S. Department of Education estimated in 2005 that American college students spend an average of $900 a year for books—a sum that, according to the National Association of College Stores, forces 60 percent of students to do without a required book.

Textbook prices keep right on rising too: a recent government study reported that textbook prices have tripled in the last two decades, increasing at twice the rate of inflation. The State Public Interest Research Groups’ Higher Education Project blames the sky high prices on ruthless publishing practices, such as putting out new editions every three years and bundling, or packaging, textbooks with extra materials like CDs and study guides that drive up costs.

Not every professor at Tech goes along with these industry practices, however. Psychology professor Richard Catrambone considers price when choosing textbooks for his students and will often arrange for older, cheaper editions to be available to them. “I think publishers have multiple pressures on them,” Catrambone said. “I don’t know that the primary reason they publish new editions so often is that they have so much new material they need a new edition. In my classes, I’d say going with the older edition happens more often than going with the newer edition.”

And as for bundling? Computer Science professor David Smith, who wrote his own textbook for the CS 1371 MATLAB class he teaches, thinks it’s alright only if the bundled material is necessary. “For instance, if a student has to have a CS book and has to have MATLAB, then bundling is okay. But if they don’t need it and can use campus computers, then it’s wrong to force them to buy the MATLAB license. I won’t let the publishers bundle my book with MATLAB unless the option of buying it separately is there,” Smith said.

“I personally never make use of the bundled materials,” Catrambone added. “My own research is on educational materials, and a lot of that bundled material is not necessarily very good, in my opinion. I think students should be allowed to buy just the book if they want.”

Bundled or not, textbooks are still costing students a pretty penny, although help may be on the way. A bill with provisions for textbook affordability just passed both houses of Congress and is now awaiting the President’s signature. The bill would require publishers to list book prices, changes between current and previous editions of a book, and the availability and prices of alternative formats so professors can choose less expensive titles. The bill would also do away with pricey add-ons and require publishers to sell “unbundled” books.

An added bonus for students is that colleges would have to include the ISBN and prices of all textbooks for each course during registration so that students can prepare for the cost and have time to search for lower prices and allow for shipping.

In the meantime, students will just have to bite the bullet and keep forking over large wads of money for their books. “I’m probably looking at losing another $600 this fall,” Trawick said. “But I expect it now.”