Book costs plague students

Amy Horst

At the beginning of the semester, Stefanie Benham decided she no longer wanted to pay the textbook prices at the University Bookstores.

So, on friends’ advice, the second-year University student decided to buy books on a Web site selling used books at prices conventional bookstores often cannot match. By purchasing half her textbooks there, she saved more than $100 on books for the semester.

According to a report by California Public Interest Research Group last week, Benham and other students have reason to be upset about the cost of college textbooks. The consumer group said the cost of textbooks is increasing as publishers issue new editions and add new items such as CD-ROMs and study guides to textbooks.

University officials and professors said textbook prices have alarmed them for almost 20 years, but solutions are difficult to find.

Bob Crabb, University Bookstores director, said the bookstores can’t do much when it comes to textbook prices.

Currently, the bookstores pay $75 for a book for which they charge $100. Keeping 25 percent of the profits is standard practice for textbook retailers, Crabb said, and is far below the profits made by retailers of other goods, where profit margins are closer to 40 percent.

He also said packaging books together with materials such as CD-ROMs does not immediately make books more expensive. Publishers often offer the bundle of books and CD-ROMs at the same price as the book alone.

But Crabb said students lose when trying to sell the books back because they forget the book came with a CD-ROM or other materials. Without the extra materials, students cannot sell the book back to the bookstore or they receive less than the full amount.

The issue of textbook prices is much different than other industries, said Akshay Rao, a Carlson School of Management professor. Students do not have the same choices consumers of other products have, Rao said, because professors decide what books students buy.

However, textbook publishers said students might have some choice by buying books online or directly from wholesalers if they do not like the prices their university’s bookstore charges.

Professors can choose to order books that are less expensive, said Judith Platt, communication and public affairs director for the Association of American Publishers.

“Our publishers offer students and professors a wealth of choices,” Platt said. “There is a continuum of price points, from low cost to fully loaded.”

Platt also said the extra materials the study criticized are useful for distance learning.

One solution to high textbook prices at smaller campuses is textbook rentals, where students pay a fee to rent books for a semester.

However, Craig Swan, vice provost for Undergraduate Education, said that system is not feasible for the University because the cost would be too high for a larger university.

“These programs are not as simple as they seem,” he said. “I am not convinced that that is a solution, and I don’t see that there’s much of any cost savings there.”