Congressional hearing on textbook prices

A congressional committee held a public hearing on textbook prices at Portland State Friday focused on keeping textbook prices down.

A congressional committee held a public hearing on textbook prices at Portland State Friday focused on keeping textbook prices down.

Many students pay close to a thousand dollars a year for textbooks, and politicians, faculty, students and even publishers are looking for ways to make textbooks more affordable to students.

From Dec. 1986 to Dec. 2004 the cost of textbooks nearly tripled, according to a United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) report. The report says extra features (CD-ROMs and DVDs), and frequent revisions to textbooks are to blame for the price increases.

A $50 textbook in 1986 cost $143 in 2004, a 186 percent increase in price. Alternatively, inflation increased by 72 percent from 1986 to 2004, according to the GAO.

Jolene Willson, member of the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG) and coordinator for the Make Textbooks Affordable campaign spoke at the hearing.

“It’s important enough that there’s people from Congress doing this investigation,” Willson said. “Anything we can do to lower the cost of school is a good thing. Publishing companies are ripping students off that are just trying to get an education.”

Last year, U.S. Representatives Howard P. McKeon, R-Calif., and David Wu, D-Ore., asked the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance to determine what can be done on the problem of rising textbook prices. Portland was the last stop for the committee before they give their final report on textbooks to Congress this May.

Willson said she has spent upwards of $400 per term on textbooks and has never resold a textbook for more than 50 percent. Faculty can play a huge role in keeping costs down, because they are the ones who order the textbooks, Willson said.

One instructor said she had spent the whole summer researching textbooks from many different companies to find one that was the best value for students. Some instructors use only a few chapters of textbooks and most don’t use the supplemental material at all, Willson said.

“If instructors and faculty are ordering a different book from a non-major company they can make that happen,” Willson said about keeping textbook prices down.

Megan Driver, board chair for the Oregon Student Association, said that textbook prices have gotten out of hand.

“Students are literally having to choose whether to buy food or textbooks,” she said.

The cost of textbooks compared to the cost of education ratio is highest for community college students, according to the GAO report. For 2003-04, two-year public college students spent about $886 dollars a year, or 72 percent of the cost of tuition, on textbooks.

Four-year private college students spent about $850 a year for books, or 8 percent, while four-year public college students spent $898 per year, or 26 percent of the cost of tuition.

To combat these costs Willson prepared a resolution for faculty members to help keep textbook prices down, which was passed this month by Portland State’s faculty senate and student senate. This joint resolution was the first in at least 17 years, according to faculty senate member Scott Burns.

“Every faculty member I’ve heard from has been very excited about it,” Burns said. “Overall faculty are very concerned about the price of textbooks.”

The resolution says that faculty can keep textbook prices down by ordering textbooks earlier to ensure the availability of used copies, using the same edition of major textbooks for a minimum of three years, and by requesting that books be sold unbundled with supplemental material whenever possible.

Burns said he has ordered textbooks at the last possible minute, in many cases forcing students to buy a new copy. He said he hopes the resolution will start to change things.

The resolution does not force faculty to adhere to it, but Burns said he thinks they will.

Bart Stewart, a technology specialist for the publishing company Addison Wesley/Benjamin Cummings, said the future of the textbook industry is with online textbooks and courses.

Stewart said online courses are important for the future because they cost less and let teachers be more active in the content they offer. Since the content can be updated instantly, there is no cost associated with new textbook editions.

Brain Lynch, chief operating officer for Railway Media, spoke at the public hearing about a portable book reader, called the iLiad, which students could electronically import textbooks into. Electronic textbooks could be as much as 50 percent cheaper than regular print textbooks. The iLiad, which is not offered in the U.S. yet, would cost about $600 and could hold a few textbooks, Lynch said.

Both Driver and Willson said at the hearing that the students they represent would be interested in technology like this. “Students are very receptive and excited for the use of textbooks online,” Driver said.

Claude O. Pressnell Jr., the committee vice chairperson, said after the last year of testimonies of students to faculty and publishers, he has learned a lot about the issue of textbooks and will take this knowledge back to Washington D.C.

“We can say for certain we have heard all the sides,” Pressnell said.