Surprise! We’re Being Ripped Off!

With tuition rising and the costs of a college education at an all-time high, the last thing students need are selfish book publishers taking advantage of their monopolistic reign over educational materials.
In a recent survey conducted by CALPIRG, OSPIRG and the OSPIRG Foundation, data on textbook costs and content was collected this past fall at 10 public colleges in California and Oregon, including interviews with 156 faculty members and over 500 students.
Their recently released report entitled ‘Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Textbook Industry Drive Up the Cost of College Textbooks’ came to several conclusions from the information collected.
The first of these is that textbooks are expensive and getting even more expensive. Publishers not only raise the prices of their books with every edition, most already averaging over $90, but they also sell the same books overseas for half of what their retail cost is in the United States, a practice that clearly takes advantage of American consumers.
Other methods of raising textbook costs is the inclusion of extraneous study materials, items that the study also found that most teachers and students do not utilize. Of the 33 textbooks examined, only one book came in both a ‘bundled’ and ‘unbundled’ edition, with the former costing double that of the latter.
Also observed was that publishers make few changes in the content between editions of their books. Some speculation even claims that a new edition only comes out when the circulation of used textbooks among students causes a dent in industry sales. For some types of books, like calculus, little has changed in the topic for the past hundred years, supporting the lack of a need for a new edition every three years.
The study suggested several solutions to this epidemic that would lower the $900 average that students spend on textbooks a year.
Textbooks should be priced and sold at a reasonable cost to students. This would include publishers selling unbundled editions of their books, publishers disclosing differences between editions, and university faculty taking book prices into account when assigning materials for classes.
Students, teachers and universities should also build strong used-textbook markets. We already have evidence of the success of such programs on Web sites such as www.ZotSwap.com, www.AnteaterForum.com and www.Anteaters.com.
Just because publishers choose to raise prices does not mean that students must suffer from their policies. Students and faculty are still the consumers of the textbook market; if they start reusing books, the competition will force publishers to lower their prices.
Recently, one of the textbook publishing companies responded to the demands of the students in positive form. In a press release earlier this month, Thomson Learning announced a new line of reduced-cost text books that is expected to be 25 percent cheaper than the original hardcovers; the new books will have fewer colors, photograhs and charts. Though it is uncertain how extensive in topics this new line will be, the attempt to reform is a positive step catalyzed by CALPRIRG’s report.

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