The High Price of College Textbooks May Come Down

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When a group of student representatives spoke at a recent meeting of the Cleveland State University board of trustees they didn’t talk about the basketball team, or the dormitory food. They wanted the board to know that textbooks are really expensive. ideastream’s Mark Urycki reports that CSU and other state schools are working together to find a solution.


The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says textbook costs have risen more than 1000% since 1977, more than three times the cost of living.  And the Government Accountability Office says in the decade between 2002 and 2012, consumer prices went up 28 percent while textbook prices went up 82%.

But The complaint at Cleveland State wasn’t just about the cost of books.   Some textbook companies also require the purchaser to pay for online access codes that  provide students with sample test questions and exercises.

The president of the Student Government Association at CSU,  Emily Halasah, says students on tight budgets are making some hard choices. 

“A lot of professors make the homework on this portal part of the grade, which students are choosing not to purchase the access code because they can’t afford it.  And so they’ll just take the 10% hit in their grade.  That’s definitely affecting our graduation rates. “    

What kind of prices are we talking about for both books and access codes? 

“Both books and access codes we’re talking about $500 per semester.  For just access codes alone it’s probably about $400 of that $500.   Per access code,  it can range from $90 to $100 just for the code.”  

The access codes also hurt the cost-saving college tradition of buying used books, says

CSU Professor of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science Nigamanth Sridhar

“From a faculty perspective,  it becomes impossible for us to use a textbook and use the benefits of using the same textbook for several years because students can’t really purchase used books. And even if they do purchase a used book they have to pay for the access code separately so if they purchase a used book for let’s say 40% of the cost they’re still paying 100% for the access code.”

At the Cleveland State bookstore you can easily spot hardbound books priced at 200 to 300 dollars each.   Christopher Shockley is a math major who also works here. 

So for a book like this, Fundamental Physics, which is running $232 new, what would the access code likely cost?

“Probably $115…or you could just buy the access code and the book is on there.  So it would be online reading but you’d have the book.  So it saved me about $100 to do it through the website”

But when class time is up and your semester is over do you still have that book online?

“No.”

And that’s a problem for students who want to keep their books, says Emily Halasa

“That doesn’t mean you get a book to put on your shelf reference later in life on Accounting I and II. You just get the code for 15 weeks.” 

Going digital

Textbooks are expensive to produce says the Executive Director of Higher Education for the Association of American Publishers. But David Anderson says going digital does lower the costs.

One of these programs would be about half the price of a hardbound textbook that would otherwise be used in that course.   We’ve also found that they are far more engaging so that students do better. “ 

Anderson says textbooks are expensive to produce but adds that publishers are making deals with colleges or departments for cheaper books when they can sell books in bulk.  But schools are taking the matter into their own hands. 

A statewide effort

CSU President Ronald Berkman says state universities in Ohio are now working together.

“There’s going to be a strong initiative to try to regulate the prices and lower the cost of textbooks for students across the state.  It’s been a fast escalating expense.”  

The Ohio Task Force on Affordability and Efficiency in Higher Education, established by Governor Kasich, has proposed that schools hire a professional negotiator to deal with publishers, as the University of Cincinnati has done.   It also suggests that departments choose common books and materials –especially for gateway courses- so that a college or group of state colleges could buy in bulk.

And finally, a handful of Democrats and one Independent in the US Senate this month proposed the Affordable College Textbook Act,  a bill to help pay for open source college textbooks. A similar bill was proposed two years ago, but went nowhere.  

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