LSA sophomore Barbara Patterson was excited when she thought she would save money this year by using her roommate’s biology textbook from last year. She was outraged – but not surprised – to find out that her professor had required the newer edition, which was only slightly different from the old version, but more expensive.

Sarah Royce
A congressional committee has found that students pay three times more for their textbooks than they did in 1986. (SHUBRA OHRI/Daily)

Patterson said she wished the University would do something to help students combat rising textbook prices. In many instances, professors don’t realize the extra cost of new editions or of the CD-ROMs bundled with the books, she said. By limiting a professor’s freedom to choose these expensive extras that often go unused, Patterson said, the University could greatly reduce the cost to students.

Last month, Congress recommended that universities control rising textbook prices through regulation. Some universities already impose regulations in the form of controls over the number of books that can be assigned for a class or how much those books can cost.

Congress’s recommendation stemmed from a July report from the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative staff organization.

In the report, the GAO said today’s students are paying three times what students paid in 1986 for textbooks. The report added that prices are still climbing 6 percent a year – more than double the rate of general inflation.

“Universities should be encouraged to implement numerous options to address textbook affordability,” Congress recommended in an August amendment to the College Access and Opportunity Act.

But while the University encourages professors to assign the cheapest options, administrators said no official action has been taken to limit the price or number of textbooks professors use.

Robert Megginson, an associate dean in the College of Literature, Science and the Arts, said the University’s nonintervention in professors’ textbook choices is a principle of academic freedom. The result of imposing limits on what books to use, he said, “would be to substitute my judgment for the professor’s, and I’m just not capable of doing that. The University is not going to tell professors what textbooks to buy.”

But a university-imposed cap on a book’s price or a limit on the number of books allowed per course are steps that some universities have taken to ease the financial burden on students. Jennifer Libertowski, spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores, used the University of Arizona as an example of a school that imposes these limits.

And at Brown University, “there is considerable discussion and awareness of book costs,” said Larry Carr, director of Bookstore and Services at the Rhode Island campus. Academic departments at Brown work closely with bookstores to provide early book ordering information, and this has helped to reduce the cost to students. By having book orders early, bookstores are able to locate more used copies that can be offered to students at reduced prices.  

University of Michigan anthropology Prof. Andrew Shryock said his reaction to University controls would “depend on what kinds of limits they imposed and how they were justified.” He added that he would not want a set of blanket limits on the books he can assign.

The GAO reported that textbook publishers have been including expensive add-ons such as CD-ROMs, as well as issuing new editions at shorter intervals, which prevents students from buying used versions because many professors require the most recent edition.

Shryock said that “sometimes professors are not as alert to the price of books as we should be.” That is because in many instances professors simply cannot imagine a person who would not be thrilled with the concept of spending most of their money on books, he said.

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