Textbooks losing popularity

Ron Mozelewski teaches introductory economics pretty much by the textbook, one chapter after another. In his informal lectures, he refers often to specific pages where students can find information they’ll need for tests.

Yet more than a week into the new semester, only about half of his students have brought the assigned book to his class at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. Some say they simply left it at home. Others plead good intentions, saying they plan to buy it.

Mozelewski’s experience tells him, though, that five to 10 students in this class of 25 or so will never get around to getting the book. He says that’s the way it’s been for several years in his classes and those of some of his colleagues. And they’re worried about it.

So is the National Association of College Stores, which estimates that about 20 percent of undergraduates nationwide aren’t buying, renting or otherwise acquiring the books their professors expect them to have. In surveys, only about 42 percent of students have told the association they think textbooks are necessary.

The association is running a test campaign on 18 campuses to bring the situation to the attention of faculty members.

“Faculty believe that having textbooks correlates with student success,” said Laura Nakoneczny, spokeswoman for the group, said they don’t realize that more students “are just saying no to purchasing required books.”

No question that many students are put off by cost. The price has been rising rapidly as publishers have updated content, printed books on better paper, added color and graphics and, in some cases, packaged them with compact discs.

Gary Shapiro, a senior vice president of Follett Corp., which operates 680 stores on 550 college campuses around the country, puts the average price of a college textbook today at $72.83.

And that’s only the average. Joya Deutsch says she paid $145 for an abnormal psychology book at Washington University this semester.

Steven Saville of Webster Groves, Mo., is a student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He says some students there take the wait-and-see approach to textbook buying. “They don’t get the textbooks at all, or they wait until they need them,” he said.

And sometimes they don’t. Saville recalls a physics course, for instance, in which all of the important material could be gleaned from lectures and class discussion. In a computer programming course, “it ended up being that the book that was recommended was just there for reference,” he said. “I bought it but I took it back.”

Nobody is predicting that textbooks will go the way of slates and quill pens, but this is the digital age. Today’s college students learn not just from the printed word but from television and the Internet. Savvy professors have learned to supplement books with new media.

“I have a sense that we are losing the attention of these younger people by being too book-oriented,” said Van Reidhead, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. “I think we have to learn how to re-engage this shorter-attention-span group of people.”

Reidhead, like many professors now, requires less book and more online learning than he used to. He says he likes the Web for the flexibility it gives him to create links to topics of special interest that come up in class.

Even so, Reidhead emphasizes to his students the very first day of class that he expects them to buy the text. Mozelewski expects the same, but he also accompanies his lectures with PowerPoint presentations summarizing the text’s main points.

Students even arrive at medical school, having gotten through college mainly by going to class, taking notes and using Web sites, says Dr. Randy Sprague, professor in the departments of pharmacology and physiological science at St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. He describes their attitude as: “What do you need a textbook for? Half the textbook is on the Web anyway.”