Campus Overload Live with Jenna Johnson: College textbooks

Jan 13, 2011

It's that time of year when college students are waiting in long bookstore lines to purchase hundreds of dollars worth of textbooks -- or waiting for boxes of books to arrive in the mail from online sellers. The average full-time student spends about $693 on course materials each year, according to The National Association of College Stores. These days, the average price of new text book is around $64 and used is $57.

The college textbook industry is quickly changing: Textbook rentals are gaining popularity. Online sellers are edging out campus stores. Publishers are creating digital textbooks and online courses. Some professors are starting to think twice about their lengthy book lists or opting to create custom texts for their courses. And students are using iPhone apps and Google to find the best deals out there.

What does this all mean? Thursday afternoon I will be joined by two guests who can answer all of your textbook questions.

Hey, welcome to Campus Overload Live. I am logged on from the snowy campus of Towson University near Baltimore, where I am working on a story about campus smoking bans.

I know college students everywhere are spending a lot of time this month purchasing their textbooks for the spring semester -- and, likely, they are also spending some time complaining about the hundreds of dollars they have to fork over.

Here to answer all of your questions about all-things-textbooks are two very different experts... Nicole Allen is the textbooks advocate for the Student PIRGs and director of the Make Textbooks Affordable project. Bruce Hildebrand is the executive director for higher education for the Association of American Publishers.

All of us are eager to answer your questions! Fire away...

Good afternoon.  I'm Bruce Hildebrand and I’m Executive Director for Higher Education for the Association of American Publishers (AAP) – the national trade association of the U.S. book publishing industry. I help AAP communicate with government officials and with the public about the value and importance of the textbook industry to America’s colleges and college students. 

I am a former print and radio journalist who was active in campaign politics from 1972 until 1985 and served in the administrations of three presidents. In addition for 10 years, I've served as the president and CEO of an international consulting and development firm and for 6 years as a Senior Vice President at Hill and Knowlton International Public Relations.

I always learn something new when I talk to the education community and to students, so I’m looking forward to the discussion today. 

Hi everyone!  Nicole Allen here from the Student PIRGs' Make Textbooks Affordable Campaign, which is a nationwide grassroots effort to fight the rising cost of college textbooks.  I'm thrilled to be here today, because I know this is an issue important to a lot of students, parents and faculty across the country.  Let's get started!

Is $64 really the average cost of a textbook? If so, there's something seriously wrong with my school! Most of the books I've had to buy are $100 or $200, and same with my friends.

Actually, some textbooks are expensive. Others are not. According to the last report I’ve seen by the National Association of College Stores, the average retail price of a textbook is about $59. That means that the average publishers’ wholesale price is about $44.

Don't worry, you're not alone! Averages can be tricky, because you never know what's included.  Novels?  Lab manuals? Also, they don't necessarily take into account which books are most popular.  For example, there are hundreds of different textbooks on calculus, but most students are assigned to use one of the most popular books like Calculus by Stewart ($224.95).  Last year, we calculated the average price of 100 top-selling textbooks, and it was $175 new and $132 used.

There are a number of lawsuits about making courses available to blind students. What are publishers doing to help institutions make classes accessible?

Two years ago, AAP members publishers donated nearly $1 million to the Alternative Media Access Center at the University of Georgia, to create the AccessText Network. The AccessText Network is a national online database of alternative college materials that makes it quicker and easier to get the alternative electronic textbooks to students with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia, or physical impairments that prevent the use of traditional hardcopy textbooks.  The AccessText Network has more than 600 colleges and universities in 49 states enrolled to participate in the system. There are more than 360,000 textbook titles available through the AccessText Network.

Why ARE textbooks so expensive?

It boils down to basic economics.  Students are in a pretty vulnerable position as consumers, because they're told which textbooks to buy.  Publishers are virtually guaranteed students' business, which is why they can get away with charging such exorbitant prices.  Also, the market is dominated by just five major companies, so there's very little competition on price - even though the vast majority of faculty would rather assign less expensive books.

Now, I'm sure Bruce will have something to say from the publisher perspective, but it's the truth this economic dynamic has allowed prices to spiral out of control.  Fortunately, it's also true that it doesn't have to be this way -- look at new innovations like open-source textbooks, which are high-quality and accessible free online (and only cost $20-30 in print).  We have all of the technology we need to make textbooks affordable, so it's time to start using it!

Actually, some textbooks are expensive.  Others are not.  According to the National Association of College Stores, the average retail price of a textbook is about $59.  That means that the average publishers’ wholesale price is about $44.  Publishers understand students’ concerns about the cost of higher education and are aggressively working to provide them with multiple options and a variety of prices for their learning materials.  Publishers are also using more lower-cost texts in the form of split editions, loose-leaf editions, electronic books, black-and-white editions, abbreviated texts, textbooks by-the-chapter and custom texts. 

The good news is that recent data from Student Monitor shows that average student spending on textbooks has been flat or declining since spring ’06.  The latest Student Monitor data show that the average 4-year college student spent $659 in 2009, down 7% from 2008, and less than the average spent in 2005.  Adjusted for inflation, the average student spent 8% less for textbooks in 2009 than in 2001.

http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/docs/Afford_Op_Textb101509.pdf

Faculty said they "were concerned that open/free/affordable 'and high-quality' were oxymoronic" and "no high quality and reliable open textbooks currently available in their subjects."

While there is lots of material out there on the internet, much of it is of varying quality. How can faculty find free and affordable texts that are actually high quality?

A great place to start is our Catalog of Open Textbooks, which lists many of the top free, online books currently available (we also provide information about how to order print copies).  You can also check out these websites:

collegeopentextbooks.org

flatworldknowledge.com

cnx.org

I really don’t have an answer to your question.  I did note, however, that the PIRG study (http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/docs/Afford_Op_Textb101509.pdf) says, “The few faculty who have worked with open textbooks and/or open educational resources have been disappointed in the low quality or lack of easy access/usability.”  Faculty also told PIRG that “vigorous peer review and editorial oversight are essential components for open textbooks.”

I really want to get as many of my books online as E-books. Is there a good website to look online to get them. Trying to be green!

Please go to www.CourseSmart.com.  This is the world's largest e-book site.  It was created by publishers.  It offers  discounts of up to 60% less than the price of the printed textbook.

E-books are definitely one way to go green, but just make sure you carefully do the math on cost. Most e-books are about half the price of a new book, so it's less up-front. However, they usually expire after 6 months and you won't be able to sell them back. If you bought a used book instead (which also saves trees), you could keep it or sell it back for up to 50% of what you spent.

What about open textbooks? Are professors using them? How does it work for students?

Open textbooks are an innovative way of publishing that is rapidly gaining traction.  In most ways, they're just like any other textbook -- they're written by expert authors and cover the same material.  The biggest difference is that they're published online where students can access them for free, and students also have the option to purchase a hard copy for $20-30.  Also, open textbooks are licensed to allow instructors to customize the text to better fit a class.

Open textbooks have already been adopted in more than a thousand college classrooms, and can save students up to 80%.  Overall, we see open textbooks as "the bar" for textbook affordability - it's where efforts to make textbooks affordable should aim!

In study after study, faculty have said that quality and meeting the needs of their students come first.  I expect the number of open source materials to grow and improve and I expect publishers to be a major part of this movement.  For now, however, PIRG's own study provides some valid insight.  Faculty told PIRG that "there were no high quality and reliable open textbooks currently available in their subjects that were no comparable to the printed/traditional textbooks they used."  The study also said, "The few faculty who have worked with open textbooks and/or open educational resources have been disappointed in the low quality or lack of easy access/usability.

As the world becomes more digital, what's being done to make sure that students with disabilities can still access class materials? Are digital class materials better suited to reach a variety of students with a variety of needs and learning styles?

Two years ago, the Association of American Publishers' members donated almost $1 million to the Alternative Media Access Center at the University of Georgia, to create the AccessText Network www.accesstext.org.  The AccessText Network is a national online database of alternative college materials that makes it quicker and easier to get the alternative electronic textbooks to students with disabilities such as blindness, dyslexia, or physical impairments that prevent the use of traditional hardcopy textbooks.  The Network has more than 600 colleges and universities in 49 states enrolled to participate in the system. There are more than 360,000 textbook titles available through the Network. 

I rarely buy my kids textbooks on campus anymore. Depending on the book, I hit BN.com, Amazon, and half.com. With an Entertainment Book you also get another 7% off from BN.com (not a one-time coupon). You have to be careful in the second-hand market against so-called "international editions", they're not always the same. I don't trust rental arrangements for my sons; the price difference is just not enough and I would prefer they beat their books to death than to keep them pristine.

Great insight -- I wrote a story about textbook rentals last year and found that while sometimes it's a better deal for students, sometimes it's not. Especially at university bookstores, the rental option is only available for super popular titles, which students can already buy cheaply.

The trick is to comparison shop -- which students can now do easily, thanks to web-browsing smart phones. And remember to hit the bookstores early to get the best pick of used books (sometimes you can find some that have never even been opened).

Max Levitte of cheapism.com wrote a guest blog for Campus Overload that outlines some other tips for buying online.

A question that just came in reminded me just how quickly textbooks can become outdated. I remember standing in the sell-back line with a college friend when he realized he wouldn't be able to sell back his expensive meteorology book because of Hurricane Katrina. The same thing happened to modern American history books after Sept. 11.

Any other examples? Or examples of professors who have found creative ways to supplement out-dated texts with current info?

Not college level, but I wonder if the state of Virginia regrets only considering price when they purchased cheap textbooks and got textbooks filled with factual errors.

Ha! I'm actually unsure if the books were cheap or not -- but Arlington just announced it's pulling the books from its schools until the publisher releases free revised copies.

For those not familar with the issue, which has been covered indepth by my colleague Kevin Sieff for months, here's one of the first articles he wrote in October.

Bruce, last time we talked you told me about something I had never heard of: Custom textbooks. This is where a professor can pull a few chapters from here, an essay or diagram from there, and compile their own textbook. How popular are these books? And how much do they cost?

Custom textbooks are the fastest growing segment of Higher Education publishing.  It needs to be noted that studies show that student are more concerned about how much a book is used than about its price.  They get frustrated if the book they were required to purchase is not used in the class.  With custom textbooks, the faculty can design textbooks that cover only the exact materials that are actually used in the class.  These books are almost always cheaper and students have told researchers that they like them very much.  Plus, they are cheaper because you only pay for what you use.   

Nicole, obviously professors (well, or department heads) are the ones who pick which textbooks students purchase. What can they do to lower the bill students have to pay?

Faculty play a very important role in reducing the cost of textbooks.  Fortunately, we know that most faculty members are aware of this issue and are willing to help reduce costs for students.  The most important thing faculty can do is to consider many options and consider the cost, especially affordable alternatives like open-source textbooks.  They should also consider assigning older editions and avoid bundles unless necessary.  See our website for more tips for faculty.

What is the justification behind continually introducing new editions of textbooks on topics that have not changed significantly in the past decade or longer (e.g. Calculus)? These new editions often make previous editions unusable in the classroom setting, forcing students to purchase new books rather than being able to buy used.

As you point out, new editions are sometimes motivated by eliminating used book sales, because publishers only make money when books are sold new!  Obviously new editions make sense in some fields, but one of our studies found about 3 in 4 professors say new editions are justified half the time or less.

My daughter minored in French when she was in school. One semester the course list included the newest edition of a four-inch thick french dictionary at a cost of over $100. I could by the most recent past edition second-hand for $15. I wrote the professor to inquire what had changed so dramatically in the french language in the past year that made the more expensive edition necessary. She confessed that she hadn't put any thought into it, had just put the newest version on the list.

I cannot explain the professor's response, but I can tell you that more and more schools are eliminating language labs in favor of publisher-produced online courses that enable students to study 24/7, more cheaply and more effectively.

The big publishers offer a trusted product, but of course charge what they think they can get. Moving to digitial texts would seem to reduce the publishing costs but not all teachers and students can use (teach/learn from) digital texts on the same level as printed material. Will the big publishers ever offer different prices for the same material but priced per format (ie, cheaper digitial texts)?

Publishers do offer a myriad of options across a broad range of prices.  As I noted in an earlier question, publishers are also using more lower-cost texts in the form of split editions, loose-leaf editions, electronic books, black-and-white editions, abbreviated texts, textbooks by-the-chapter and custom texts. 

As I believe I also mentioned, recent data from Student Monitor shows that average student spending on textbooks has been flat or declining since spring ’06.  The latest Student Monitor data show that the average 4-year college student spent $659 in 2009, down 7% from 2008, and less than the average spent in 2005.  Adjusted for inflation, the average student spent 8% less for textbooks in 2009 than in 2001.

 

Why is it that many digital copies of textbooks cost nearly as much as the paper copies?

If you go to www.CourseSmart.com you'll find 90% of the most popular textbooks at 60% off the price of the traditional textbook.  I should add, that the majority of the cost of a textbook is in the production of the content - whether it is delivered in print or digitally. 

I work in college textbook publishing. From my perspective, the publisher gets way too much of the blame for the cost of textbooks. Look at the bookstores. When a book is sold new, the author gets his or her royalties, the bookstore takes its profit, and the publisher gets its cut. When the bookstore gives you $10 for the book you paid $85 new, it turns around and sells it for $70. The ONLY party in this second transaction making any money is the book store. They can buy back and resell that same book over and over. The author gets no royalties on used books and the publisher gets nothing. The bookstores are raking in millions and millions and everyone blames the greedy publisher. Why is there not more discussion of this gross imbalance?

Thank you for your comments. 

Who will be making sure these open source materials are of the same quality as peer-reviewed textbooks? When it comes to textbook materials, isn’t quality at least as important as price?

I really don’t have an answer to your question. I did note, however, that the PIRG study says, “The few faculty who have worked with open textbooks and/or open educational resources have been disappointed in the low quality or lack of easy access/usability.”  Faculty also told PIRG that “vigorous peer review and editorial oversight are essential components for open textbooks.”

Just for clarification -- the study Bruce cites wasn't published by PIRG, it was by an independent researcher at UC Berkeley... But, the point is valid.  Quality control is very important, and in the past (which the study refers to) there haven't been many mechanisms for quality control.  Fortunately, there are new models evolving that can ensure open textbooks meet quality standards -- in fact, we only consider them a solution if they can stand up to traditional materials.  For example, the new publishing company Flat World Knowledge uses traditional peer review, and there are projects like WritingSpaces.org that have assembled a peer review system similar to scholarly journals.

My son had a psychology class with an expensive text. We found a coil bound edition on-line for much less. I wrote to the author (My fourth will be a freshmen next year, I have few inhibitions about this) and asked him if he could give me any advice. He gave me some great advice in this case - the coil bound was identical in content, but bookstores wouldn't buy it back as used (a "rule" of some sort). But he then went on to tell me that there was a new edition coming out the next year and that I wouldn't get much for the hardcover anyway! I thanked him very sincerely!

Wow -- I had never thought of contacting the author directly, and how great of him to give you that advice!

There are lots of different initiatives out there about getting textbooks costs down. Which do you think are most effective in the short run and in the long run and why?

Publishers are now providing more textbook and course material options for students and faculty than at any time in history.

Options include:

1)     Traditional printed textbooks;

2)     Online textbooks by the chapter;

3)     3-hole punch textbooks;

4)     E-textbooks at discounts up to 60%;

5)     Online textbooks by the chapter;

6)     Custom textbooks;

7)     Textbook sold under license for discounts up to 65%; and

8)     Textbook rentals. 

As for the long term, we really need to change the way that textbooks are bought and sold to be more efficient and accessible for students.  As I've mentioned we see open-source textbooks as a great option, which harness the power of the web to distribute textbook content at virtually no cost.  Also, new technology like the Espresso Book Machine can print professional hard copies right on campus!

PIRG has endorsed open textbooks as a solution for high text prices. What is the difference between etexts and open textbooks? Are all open texts etexts? Are all etexts open texts?

E-textbooks are produced, largely, by publishers and undergo the same kind of peer review and editing of traditional textbooks.

Open textbooks are written, largely, by individuals, groups of volunteers, and a few companies.  According to PIRG’s study (pdf), faculty expressed concern that “there were no high-quality and reliable open textbooks currently available in their subjects that were comparable to the printed/traditional textbooks they used.  It is clear that there are many , many fields and subfields with no viable and acceptable open textbooks at this time.”

 

Again, the study wasn't published by PIRG, but at the time it was published there weren't many open textbooks.  Fortunately, the availability of open textbooks have rapidly expanded, see our website for a list!

As for the differences between e-texts and open textbooks, there are quite a few.  Open textbooks are free online and affordable in print, and they are openly licensed to allow permanent access.  They don't have any of the access or printing restrictions that most e-textbooks have, and they never expire!

Why won't the media more critically examine the business model of textbook rental sites, and especially school bookstores that are now beginning to get in on the rental game? In my experience, the cost of a rental is usually only slightly less than the lowest used price online, and if you bought the book you could sell it later and recoup usually 50-75+% of the purchase price. So, it seems to me that Chegg, etc., and the campus bookstores as they begin to offer rentals, are really just using students' ignorance about buyback programs for used books to increase their margins even more.

Not a year goes by that there's not another marketing gimmick in place to "save" students money on a large number of things. Right now the hot thing is rentals -- and my e-mail inbox has been filled with press releases from tons of companies.

If students really want to save money, they have to look at all of their options from a variety of booksellers.

The cost of a single book is irrelevant, someone always can find a Penguin edition of Tom Sawyer for $5. The cost per course is much much higher. Ask anyone taking a biological science. And $225 for a calculus book - that is basically the same one I used in 1975 - is outrageous. The content isn't that much improved.

Passing along this comment...

I've heard this many times, but it's a myth. The release of new editions of textbooks has remained steady for decades and averages about four years. A 2008 study by the California State Auditor confirmed this statistic, finding the average release of new editions to be 3.9 years.  That means a single textbook could be re-used an average of 12 times or more in its lifespan.

Interesting! Thanks for passing along the info!

In this new age of technology and modernization, is it time to update the way students learn? What do traditional textbooks do for visual learners? www.centerofmath.org is a company that provides digital textbooks as PDFs with full length lecture videos and shorter videos for students to reference. Why isn't this more widespread yet?

Well... as college employees often like to complain... it often takes a long, long time to change things at an institution of higher education....

Many academics, the very same people who tend to write textbooks, contribute to sites like Wikipedia in their spare time, for fun and the satisfaction of knowing that they are improving the quality of the publicly-accessible knowledge about their subject. Can we expect a similar dynamic with open textbooks? If not, where will the economic incentive to create quality open textbooks come from?

Models for supporting and compensating authors are evolving.  Some ideas have come up in answers above, such as new publisher business models, editorial boards, and grant funding.  That said, I do know of a few projects looking into collaborative authoring tools that could allow a group of academics to contribute to writing a text.  However, I don't think a model that's truly like Wikipedia (as in the public can edit it) is in the future of textbooks!

Do we still need publishers when everyone can pretty much self-publish on the web? What role will publishers play in the future?

PIRG's own study provides a clear answer to your question on page 5 (http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/docs/Afford_Op_Textb101509.pdf) faculty want a diversity of choices, and there simply are not currently enough open textbooks to satisfy the multitude of faculty and student needs; a much wider array of high-quality, easy-to-use, and reliable open textbooks will have to be produced for more widespread faculty adoption to be realized,” and further, on page 10 the study says, faculty “noted that there were no high-quality and reliable open textbooks currently available in their subjects that were comparable to the printed/traditional textbooks they used.

I think publishers will continue to play a role in the future.  After all, they have a lot of valuable products and services to offer.  However, there is still room for innovation outside of publishers, or perhaps to expand the definition of what publishers are.  Look at the transformation that happend in scholarly journal publishing.  There are hundreds of high-quality, peer reviewed open-access journals that are accessible online to everyone in the world!

Nicole, college is expensive all around -- tuition runs in the tens of thousands, housing and food costs thousands, even parking can be expensive. (Oh, and then there's the Thursday night beers and Sunday night pizzas.) How did Student PIRGs decide to take up textbooks as a cause? And what other projects are you working on?

Textbook costs are really frustrating for a lot of students, and it's important to remember that it affects all students differently.  For students at community colleges, textbooks can sometimes cost even more than tuition!  While textbooks aren't always the largest expense, but they can be a "tipping point" - and PIRG took up the cause because we believe that textbooks can and should be more affordable.

The Student PIRGs work on a range of important public interest issues related to the environment, consumer protection and government reform -- climate change, sustainability, voter registration, hunger and homelessness... Go to www.studentpirgs.org to get involved! 

Wow, pretty sure that was the most tense online chat that I have ever led. Still, I learned a lot -- and I hope you did, too!

Bruce and Nicole, thank you so much for taking the time to answer questions today. I truly appreciate it.

I am off to hang out with some Towson students... Everyone have a great week!

In This Chat
Jenna Johnson
Jenna Johnson writes about college students and campus trends for the Post. She also runs the blog "Campus Overload," which chronicles national college news, drinking fads, admissions buzz and the latest exploits of Hill interns.
Nicole Allen
Nicole Allen is the Textbooks Advocate for the Student PIRGs and director of the Make Textbooks Affordable project. She works with students, faculty and decision-makers across the country to address the rapidly rising cost of college textbooks through grassroots organizing, public education and advocacy.
Bruce Hildebrand
Bruce Hildebrand joined the Association of American Publishers in 2004 as Executive Director for Higher Education for the Association of American Publishers. He is primarily responsible for Higher Education related public and government relations activities.

Bruce is a former print and radio journalist who was active in campaign politics from 1972 until 1985 and served in the administrations of three presidents.

For 10 years, he was president and CEO of an international consulting and development firm and served for 6 years as a Senior Vice President at Hill and Knowlton International Public Relations.
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