Lawmaker to push for open online textbooks

College students pay more than $900 annually for textbooks.
College students pay more than $900 annually for textbooks.

Every semester, a few students in Steven White’s business and marketing courses ask to borrow the professor’s copy of the course textbook. They can’t afford one for themselves, White said, and their sub-par exam scores show it.

That’s why White, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth professor since 1998, supports a federal law that aims to lower skyrocketing college textbook costs by making students privy to a class’s book prices before they register for the course, requires publishers to disclose book prices to professors, and rids textbooks of “bundles” like CDs and access to web sites that raise prices.

The law, known as the College Textbook Affordability Act, was included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act passed by Congress in 2008. The textbook provisions—championed by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.—kicked in July 1.

While colleges and universities are now required to monitor professors and book publishers to ensure they’re abiding by the new rules, Durbin said he would push for passage of another bill that would award competitive one-year grants to colleges, professors, and publishers to create open textbooks available for free on the internet.

The Open College Textbook Act probably won’t be debated in Congress until next year, said Durbin, who spoke during a July 21 conference call arranged by the Student Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), a Chicago-based organization that advocates for college students.

If institutions fail to enforce the new textbook laws, Durbin suggested that students should take their complaints beyond campus.

“I think the Department [of Education] would be interested” in hearing about College Textbook Affordability Act violations, he said.

White said he uses open textbooks when he can, because students who can’t afford course texts that can cost more than $200 are at a distinct disadvantage.

“It really puts students behind the eight ball if they don’t have the necessary material,” said White, who has a son in college who recently bought a required physics textbook for $225. “[Professors’] payoff [for using free web-based books] comes from knowing that our students have the correct tools they need in the classroom.”

College students pay more than $900 annually for textbooks, according to national surveys released in 2008 and 2009, and the cost of textbooks is rising at four times the rate of inflation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The new law’s provision requiring colleges and universities to provide lists of assigned textbooks for each course—including prices and ISBNs—will give students time to shop around the internet and local book stores for the best deal, instead of having to order the book within a week or two of the start of each semester.

College students also could save money on textbooks because the law demands that textbook companies “unbundle” books that have been packaged with multimedia material such as CDs and passwords to educational web sites that many students don’t use.

Bundling these products has raised book costs in recent years, according to industry reports. Durbin described the bundled items as “unnecessary extras” that will now be “sold as pieces instead of in a package.”

Rashi Mangalick, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a representative from the campus’s Student PIRGs chapter, said limiting the superfluous material that publishers tack on to textbooks could “reduce waste as well as cost.”

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