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Congress Acts to Stem the Tide of Rising Textbook Costs April 25, 2008

Posted by twilightandreason in Higher Education.
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Getting into college is only the first step. To successfully complete an undergraduate program a student must have textbooks; and every student (past or present) who has been all or partly responsible for shouldering the cost of their books knows that simply being able to afford the high cost of college textbooks can be a challenge in and of itself.

The high cost of textbooks disproportionately impacts Black, Latin American, and Native American students, the great majority of whom receive financial aid, and a significant proportion of whom are first-generation college matriculants. For these students, the exorbitant price of some college texts poses a much greater financial hardship than decreasing the amount of money available for clothing and entertainment. Such students often fund their school books through part-time or full-time work, the proceeds from which must also cover housing, food, tuition and — for these often uninsured students — any healthcare costs. For students with children, the financial hardship of inflated textbook prices is amplified.

The shocking cost of many college textbooks also conveys a powerfully elitist message about the culture of higher education, a message that can undermine the success of students for whom the college environment — with it’s upper-middle class and 2nd- and 3rd-generation college matriculants — can feel like an alien environment in which the scholarship student, the student of color, and/or the first-generation student is an interloper or imposter. For these and other economically marginalized students, the experience of walking into the campus bookstore and realizing that the price of the required texts exceeds his or her available funds can be a sad reinforcement of that student’s deepest doubts about whether or not he or she even belongs in school.

In a surprising but welcome move, however, the U.S. House of Representatives has taken important steps toward alleviating the burden of textbook costs for all students on campus. An editorial in today’s New York Times describes the magnitude of this problem and Congress’s pending legislation on the issue:

College students and their families are rightly outraged about the bankrupting costs of textbooks that have nearly tripled since the 1980s, mainly because of marginally useful CD-ROMs and other supplements. A bill pending in Congress would require publishers to sell “unbundled” versions of the books — minus the pricey add-ons. Even more important, it would require publishers to reveal book prices in marketing material so that professors could choose less-expensive titles.

Like the Times editors, I agree that this is “a good first step”; but unbundling college textbooks will only address one aspect of the problem. Even unbundled, textbooks are grotesquely overpriced, with some books costing $100.00 or more, and all of this for a book that will have little resale value, because students in subsequent years will likely be forced to purchased a newer edition.

The Times editorial poses several possible solutions to this problem:

[…] colleges and universities will need to embrace new methods of textbook development and distribution if they want to rein in runaway costs. That means using digital textbooks, which can often be presented online free of charge or in hard copies for as little as one-fifth the cost of traditional books. The digital books can also be easily customized and updated.

The editorial also highlights some initiatives already in place to reduce the cost to students of required course materials:

Schools are beginning to balk at outrageous pricing. Rice University offers textbooks for some classes free online and charges a nominal fee for the printed version. A new company called Flat World Knowledge, based in Nyack, N.Y., plans to offer online textbooks free and hopes to make its profit by selling supplemental materials like study guides and hard copies printed on demand.

In my opinion, schools cannot embrace textbook cost reform fast enough. Politicians, pundits, and social activists across the nation are decrying Black students’ alleged belief that education is a “white thing.” I do not, in fact, believe that this is true; but if it was — if the prevailing belief among Black youth was, indeed, that book learnin’ is a white thing — then I say, who can blame them. Nothing conveys that education is for rich, white people only, like the discovery that the cost of a single textbook for your calculus course is $178.00.

Posted by Ajuan Mance

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