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Exposing the Textbook Industry
Today’s college students are under enormous financial pressure. The gap between tuition and fees and financial aid leaves many students working long hours through college, struggling to make ends meet, and graduating with large debts. The high cost of textbooks is yet another financial burden. The cost of textbooks is not just a drop in the bucket of tuition and fees; the average student spends about $900 per year on textbooks, which is nearly 20% of tuition and fees at a four year public institution. Moreover, textbook prices are rising at about four times the rate of inflation.
MASSPIRG conducted a survey of 287 professors from a variety of disciplines at Massachusetts colleges and universities over the fall semester of 2006 to get their views on textbook industry practices that drive up prices. We identified three main areas of concern:
1. Publishers are not adequately disclosing price information to the faculty, who do care about the cost to students and want better information.
Faculty research and identify textbooks for their classes through two primary means: publishers’ sales representatives and the Internet.
Of the professors who told us that they regularly use publishers’ websites to research textbooks:
only 23% rated the site they use as ‘informative and easy to use’
less than half said that the site typically lists the price of the book
Professors who primarily use non-publisher websites, such as Amazon.com, report higher satisfaction:
61% rated the site they use as ‘informative and easy to use’
77% told us that the site usually lists the price of the book
For professors who meet with sales representatives to research textbooks:
77% told us that sales representatives rarely or never volunteer the price
And even when professors directly asked for the price during a sales meeting, only 38% reported that the sales representative would always disclose the price.
2. Publishers need to provide unbundled alternatives to bundled textbooks and disclose the availability of these alternatives.
Bundling refers to the practice of shrink-wrapping a textbook with additional materials such as CDs, pass-codes, or workbooks.
Only 50% of the professors who told us that they assigned a bundled book last semester said that they used the additional materials often. One-third said that they either could not assign the book they chose without the bundle or did not know if that option was available. This finding stands in contrast to the claims of many in the publishing industry that most of their books are available unbundled.
3. Most professors we surveyed often find new editions unnecessary.
Of the professors we surveyed, 71% said that new editions of textbooks in their field are justified only ‘sometimes’ or ‘rarely’, confirming earlier PIRG research. Since new editions are on average 12% more expensive than the previous edition, students are spending a lot of money for little educational gain. New editions also hamper the used book market, the most practical source for most students to access cheaper books.
We therefore make the following policy recommendations:
Textbooks should be produced and priced to be as inexpensive as possible without sacrificing educational value.
New textbook editions should be produced only when educationally necessary; each book should be kept on the market as long as possible, with preference given to paper or online supplements over a whole new edition.
Faculty should have the option to purchase textbooks unbundled; whenever a textbook is sold with additional materials, it also should be available without the extra materials.
Publishers should provide faculty with more information on each book’s price, intended length of time on the market and substantive content differences from previous editions. Faculty want, and have the right to know, how their textbooks choices will affect their students. They should have easy access to information about all of the publisher’s products, low cost formats, options for bundling, and corresponding price information, voluntarily provided at the start of any sales transaction and on desk copies provided by the publisher.
All textbooks should be available in a genuine low cost edition that contains comparable content in a low cost format. Information about these options should be easily available.
Faculty should give preference to least cost options when choosing their books.
There should be many avenues for students to access used books including rental programs, online bookswaps and bookstore buy-back.
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