Book prices high, GAO confirms

This just in: textbooks are really expensive.

Confirming what college students have known for years, the Government Accountability Office released a report last month that concluded that textbook prices have risen more quickly than most other goods, that identical textbooks are sold more cheaply in other countries, and development of add-on materials keep prices high.

Nationally, for every $4 students at four-year public universities spend on tuition and fees, they spend $1 on books.

Textbook prices have risen 186 percent in the past 19 years. The report contrasted that with overall inflation of 72 percent in that time period. Annually, textbook prices have increased at 6 percent, which is double the general rate since 1986.

Two years ago, Congressman David Wu lobbied the GAO to research the issue, concerned by reports that U.S. published textbooks are sold more cheaply internationally.

Wu visited Portland State University when the report was released.

“At a time when families and students are struggling with the soaring costs of tuition and the declining buying power of financial aid, it is important that congress continues to build on my efforts of the past year and look at ways to ease this burden,” Wu said.

The report calls add-ons “such as CD-ROMs and other instructional supplements” one of the most important price drivers.  “Publishers say they have increased investments in developing supplements in response to demand from instructors,” the report said, noting later that some booksellers identified the add-ons as a reason to charge students needlessly. 

“Students are required to buy these books in order to learn and succeed in their classes,” ASPSU President Erin Devaney said. “We need to fight on a united front against companies profiting on the backs of college students.”

“This just backs up the research we’ve done,” said Amy Connelly, who works on textbook issues for OSPIRG at PSU.

The National Association of College Stores pointed out in its response to the report that selling identical editions of textbooks more cheaply overseas skews production costs. “‘U.S. students should not, by themselves, bear the sole burden of course material development costs- or suffer the consequences of underdeveloped countries’ inability or unwillingness to enforce copyright laws,” the association wrote.

The Association of American Publishers took issue with the report, saying individual professors have control of textbook prices. “As could be confirmed by looking at the books available for any college course, there is always a broad range of titles that an instructor can choose for his or her students, and these titles are very often at different price points,” AAP President Patricia Schroeder wrote in her response to the report. “The instructors, of course, select what they believe best serves the educational needs of their students.”

Professors’ selection is an important factor, NACS agreed. “We believe faculty roles should be considered as an integral part of any future discussion regarding the availability and accessibility of course materials,” the association wrote.