Study finds book costs soaring

A Government Accountability Office study of U.S. college textbook pricing confirms students’ complaints: Prices have skyrocketed, driven by frequent new editions and extra materials such as workbooks and CD-ROMs, and the same textbooks often cost less overseas. Since 1986, textbook costs have increased by 186 percent, at double the rate of inflation, the U.S. GAO concluded in a report released Tuesday. That rise, combined with the 240 percent increase in the average cost of tuition and fees in the same period, can create barriers to college, particularly for low-income students. The report makes no recommendations, presenting just a factual explanation of escalating prices and the cost differences between here and abroad. But student advocates said Tuesday they hope having the GAO validate their claims will galvanize colleges to push for textbook practices that help students save money, such as asking publishers to sell books separately from other learning materials that often go unused. “Our experience is the publishers do not respond to students,” said Merriah Fairchild, a higher-education advocate with the California Student Public Interest Research Group, which has been studying textbook costs since 2003. “Professors and college administrators are the ones publishers say they take their cues from.” U.S. Rep. David Wu, a Democrat from Oregon, sought the GAO study after learning that students were ordering U.S. textbooks from’s United Kingdom Web site because they were much cheaper abroad. The report concludes that price differences from country to country largely come down to local market conditions and what students in a particular market can and are willing to pay. As students turn to the Internet, the report says, publishers have strengthened their agreements with foreign wholesalers and online retailers to limit large-scale reimportation of cheaper books to the United States. Wu plans to investigate the legality of such restraints, his spokeswoman said. The Association of American Publishers took issue with the data used by the GAO, saying the figures don’t reflect the true cost of books to students. Independent numbers produced by college bookstores and American publishers show the average full-time student at a four-year university spends $580 a year on textbooks, not the $898 the report claims. Publishers have taken steps in recent years to reduce costs, the group said, including issuing low-cost texts, electronic books, black-and-white editions and abbreviated editions. In a statement, the publishers group defended bundling supplementary instructional aids with textbooks, saying they were developed at the request of professors and respond to students’ academic needs. As more students attend college, they have a broad range of skill levels and learning styles that benefit from a range of materials, said the group’s CEO, Patricia Schroeder. This is the first time the GAO has looked at textbook prices. The government has no oversight of the publishing industry, “but there is an overall public policy interest in the cost of college, particularly for lower income students and their families,” said Cindy Fagnoni, who manages the section of the GAO that produced the report. “Our work shows that textbooks make up a significant share of college costs, especially at the type of colleges low-income students attend.” The report found that textbooks account on average for only 8 percent of the cost of tuition and fees for full-time students at a private university full time, but it is a much larger share for students at public colleges and universities – 26 percent at four-year public schools and 72 percent at two-year schools. Textbook costs have become a popular political issue, but legislation probably is not the answer, said Fairchild, from the student research group that led the textbook charge. Fairchild outlined three changes her group would like to see from publishers: * Publishing new editions only when there is significant new content; * Selling textbooks “a la carte,” not bundled, so students can choose what they need; * Charging U.S. students the same lower price other countries receive. Faculty also can help, Fairchild said. She pointed to UCLA, where math professors negotiated a price cut with the publisher of a popular calculus book, and the physics department at the University of California-Santa Cruz, which negotiated for a reprint of an older but equally good physics book that was significantly less expensive.