The Michigan Student Assembly passed an resolutions last week urging the administration to require that professors make reading lists available at least one month before classes begin. MSA resolutions come and go, but despite their general lack of clout, this one is on to something. The administration has so far been hesitant to do what it can to alleviate the burden of high textbook prices on students. MSA’s resolution is a promising sign that students are interested, but it will take additional efforts to pressure the administration and faculty. Requiring professors to make textbook lists available well before classes begin is an easy change that would make a real difference to students.
In weighing the risk of burdening professors with timetables on book lists against the potential to make textbooks cheaper for students, the choice seems clear. Students regularly face exorbitant prices for shrink-wrapped new editions and fear falling behind in their classes if a book ordered online doesn’t arrive on time.
Despite the seeming no-brainer of making it easier for students to seek cheaper used books, the measure has come under fire. Some faculty argue that different departments require different timetables to decide which books are needed, and thus setting one date for the entire University would be counterproductive. Even if a uniform deadline is unworkable, however, there seems to be no reason why individual departments could not simply require different dates. With some textbooks retailing new for more than $100, any advance notice students can get will help.
There may be little the University can do in the short term to limit the high textbook prices that result from publishers’ policies like making old editions obsolete by switching chapter orders and adding a couple paragraphs every few years. At the very least, however, students should have access to the information they need to take advantage of venues like the Internet, book swaps or used book shops like The Dawn Treader Book Shop. The imperative here is to act, not to let the measure go another year while next year’s students suffer.
The success some departments have seen with textbook notification deadlines shows that such measures can be effectively enforced. The math department, for instance, reported unanimous compliance with a requirement to post book lists by April for this past fall term. Unless University professors are simply seeking to boost profits for textbook publishers, convincing them to pick out textbooks more than a few days before classes start is hardly an unreasonable request.
With a set date in each department, students will be able to pay less for their books, easing one aspect of the already high cost of education. By knowing the required readings sooner, they will also enter their courses with a better idea of what to expect, improving the first two weeks of class, when students frantically adjust their schedules. With information out sooner, students will no longer have to dread long lines or surprise books expenses and will instead spend their first few weeks of class actually learning.