The drubbing every student receives at college bookstores has become such an issue that the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigational arm, recently looked into the skyrocketing prices of textbooks. The federal government needs to take action to force textbook companies to offer more affordable products. The University, however, should not wait for government action, as it can take constructive steps now to reduce the burden of buying textbooks.
As reported in the Daily, the GAO found that students are paying three times more for books today than they were in 1986 with book prices rising at more than double the yearly rate of inflation (Congress encourages schools to regulate textbook prices, 09/16/05). The report cited bundled items such as CD-ROMs and frequent new editions as practices that drive up prices.
The GAO report merely encouraged universities to take action that would limit the impact of textbook prices on students. That, however, is not enough. Profiteering and unfair practices, such as bundling extra items, pervade the textbook industry. A New York Times op-ed piece by Yale Law Prof. Ian Ayres points out that mergers in the industry have left 80 percent of the market in the hands of five giant firms, stifling competition.
With textbook costs now making up nearly three-fourths of the expense of attending class at many community colleges, the federal government should regulate textbook companies as a matter of educational policy. Congress should react to the GAO report by enacting legislation to force the textbook industry to lower its prices and end unfair practices such as selling only bundled editions. The free market has failed in this area.
With a Republican majority fond of free-market “solutions” in Congress, however, such necessary legislation will likely have to wait. In the meantime, the University can step up to reduce the burden of textbook costs on students. Professors often require the newest edition of a textbook every other year even though the new editions add little benefit, especially in introductory classes. Forced to buy new textbooks, students end up paying far more for marginal changes.
As classes become more integrated into cyberspace, CDs, homework programs and other bells and whistles drive the cost of textbook packages higher, often with little benefit for students. Ordering books online can save students hundreds of dollars, but shipping delays can put students behind. This problem can be remedied if the University were to adopt a policy of notifying students of their reading material well in advance of class. Professors should also make readings available online whenever possible. Because many professors have shown little concern for textbook prices, the University should encourage professors to be reasonable in their textbook requirements.
Book prices need not be a downer to an otherwise enjoyable Welcome Week. The government needs to act against textbook profiteering. For now, however, it is the responsibility of the University and its professors to do what they can to curtail the financial burden textbooks place on students. Students shouldn’t continue to “Get Used” every time they walk into a bookstore.