Textbook costs increase as alternatives develop

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NEWStextbookFor senior Angela Strombell, the start of each semester means financial anxiety. She racked up a bill amounting to more than $600 for textbooks this semester.

“I remember it was around $200 freshman year,” she said. “Now I’m paying close to $650 a semester. Right after summer break or Christmas break, I see these crazy prices for books I might not even use.”

Strombell, like many other students nationwide, has observed a trend of rising textbook prices.

Sources vary on the total cost of textbooks. For instance, the Student Monitor, a market research firm, claims that the average student pays $535 per year, while the College Board estimates that the cost students pay is closer to $1,168.

The increasing cost of textbooks is driven by a one-sided market: The publishers set prices, and professors make the demands for the products. Students have no choice but to feel the brunt of the prices, according to onlineeducation.net.

At the same time, professors tend to require the best, most interactive textbooks that seem to help their students most. But they also seem to be the most expensive.

Wendy Smith, the director of the campus bookstore, noted that textbook prices are not “determined on a book-by-book basis.”

“The pricing is transparent,” she said. “Basically, it boils down to the initial cost from the publishers, plus an agreed-upon contractual margin between the school and the bookstore operator.”

The bookstore provider at UM is Follett Higher Education Group, part of Follett Corporation, which operates college bookstores at more than 900 campuses across the U.S. and Canada.

Smith said that the bookstore tailors its offerings to the needs of students, giving them, for example, the option to purchase used textbooks or even Rent-A-Text.

“In many cases, we’re actually renting books for less than the cost to put them on our shelves,” she said. “Risky, of course, but necessary to drive down student costs.”

Smith also said that ease of access is a huge factor for students, given that the bookstore is the easiest of all purchase options.

However, junior Andres Morfin finds better savings at alternative online and physical locations, such as abebook.com, eBay, Barnes & Noble and Book Horizons, located across campus on U.S. 1.

“I usually spend about $200 a semester, but this semester it’s been over $600,” Morfin said. “The bookstore is too expensive.”

Will Sekoff, a UM alumnus who helps run the family-owned Book Horizons, said he has noticed that prices have skyrocketed.

“We make sure to stock used books and give students choices,” he said.

Sekoff believes that students prefer purchasing books at a physical location.

“While online is an option, some students like the option of a brick-and-mortar store,” said Sekoff, who emphasized that this makes returns much easier.

But some students, like junior Christopher Lloyd, simply chose not to buy textbooks. About 22 percent of students opt to do this, according to the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

“I get my books just from the depths of the Internet, meaning past page two of Google,” said Lloyd, a computer science major.

Lloyd refers to e-books, which have seen a recent boom. E-books accounted for more than 20 percent of all book spending in the second quarter of 2012, up 14 precent from the previous year, according to Publisher’s Weekly.

Will Ethridge, chief executive of Pearson North America, told The New York Times earlier this year that his company has invested $9.3 billion into new digital educational tools over the past decade.

However, the e-book alternative is not significantly cheaper than the traditional hard copy because it’s content, not paper, that is the key cost, according to the NACS. In fact, transcribing all the material to digital increases the cost.

Some e-book companies are challenging that idea by simply making the products free. Boundless.com is a startup company that provides free open-source content to registered students.

“All you do is go to our website, type in the ISBN of the book and find the alternative,” said Elizabeth Becker, the marketing manager for Boundless.

By alternative, Becker means a book with similar material and information.

“We don’t copy books,” she said. “It’s not the same words but the same content.”

According to an interview US News conducted with Dan Hilderbrand, executive director of the Association of American Publishers, the savvy student may find these alternatives helpful. However, these same alternatives breed the fiscal pressure that leads publishers to increase prices and create new editions in the first place.

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