How Much for Those Textbooks?

In 1998, the national average cost for a college textbook was $61.50. This represented an increase of $4 from the previous year, according to the National Association of College Stores. In recent years, textbook costs have grown much higher. In fact, prices have gone up so much that they have raised national attention—to the point that consumers have even called for the government to investigate!

Survey of Textbook Costs

To find out how much students really spend on textbooks, the California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG), Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group (OSPIRG), and the OSPIRG Foundation conducted a survey. They looked at the most widely required college textbooks during the fall semester of 2003 at ten public colleges and state universities in both California and Oregon. More than 150 faculty members and more than 500 students were interviewed about the cost of textbooks and individual purchasing preferences. The main findings of the survey were are follows:

  • College students spent an average of $898 per year on both new and used textbooks in 2003–2004. This represents nearly 20 percent of the average tuition and fees for in-state students at public four-year colleges nationwide. (An earlier survey at the same schools found that in 1996–1997, the average cost of textbooks was $642.)

  • Roughly 50 percent of college-level textbooks now come in bundled packages or have been shrink-wrapped with additional materials (such as interactive CD-ROMs or supplemental workbooks). Students are often not given the option of buying these textbooks without the additional materials, even if they do not plan or need to use them.

  • In only one instance was a textbook available in both bundled and unbundled (textbook only) packages. The bundled version cost more than two times as much as the unbundled version of the same college textbook.

  • Approximately 65 percent of professors and college instructors said they rarely made use of the bundled packages’ extra materials in their college courses.

  • According to 76 percent of professors and instructors, new editions of textbooks were “never” to “half the time” justified. A full 40 percent of professors and instructors reported that the new college textbook editions were “rarely” to “never” justified.

  • New college textbooks cost an average of $102. This is 58 percent more expensive than the average price of used textbooks, which is close to $65.

  • Of college students who specifically wanted used textbooks, 59 percent were unable to find even one used textbook for their entire schedule of classes.

The amount of money students spend on textbooks can vary greatly, depending on the type of class (with science books tending to cost more than other disciplines), the number of books each professor requires, and whether the student can find any used copies.

Textbook Costs in Politics

Even in politics, the rising prices of college textbooks have become a heated issue of debate. Representative David Wu of Oregon recently introduced a bill in the U.S. House of Representatives calling for an investigation into the pricing policies of some of the nation's foremost publishers of college textbooks. The bill, introduced on November 11, 2003, was turned over to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, of which Wu is a member.

The push for an investigation into the publishing industry's pricing policies came less than a month after a New York Times front-page article that was printed on October 21, 2003. The article exposed the incredibly high textbook prices that American college students have been forced to pay.

Other recent studies have revealed that U.S. college bookstores are forced to sell textbooks at double the price they sell for overseas, and that American college bookstores are often forbidden from selling less expensive alternatives to students, such as condensed, course-specific, or paperback editions. Representative Wu confirmed these findings in a public demonstration at Portland State University's bookstore on November 7, 2003.

What Does the New Bill Mean?

The bill Representative Wu introduced soon after his November demonstration assigns this investigation to the federal government's General Accounting Office (GAO). If this bill is passed, it will be the job of the GAO to inspect the situation thoroughly and report its findings back to the House of Representatives within one year.

Although rising college textbook prices are being brought into the open, they remain, nonetheless, as they are—ridiculously high. So be prepared to pay them. (There are some things you can do to save some money, however. For tips, see Chapter 9.)

The more necessary items you bring with you to college, the less you will have to buy later. It would be wise to make a list of these items and take at least a shopping day or two to locate and purchase them in advance.

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