Study Hits Textbook Prices

Friday January 30, 2004

Top textbook publishers are giving students a costly lesson in exploitative pricing, according to a study released Thursday by California Student Public Interest Research Group (CALPIRG). 

UC students will spend an average of $898 on textbooks this year, the student group concluded. That’s 20 percent more than the $642 dollars students spent seven years ago, according to a 1997 UC survey. 

“It’s clear that students are being taken advantage of,” said Zachary Kruth, CALPIRG chair at UC Berkeley. 

The culprits, the report concludes, are the top few publishers—Pearson, McGraw Hill and Thompson—that have made habits of releasing new editions every three to four years even if little has changed in the course of study, filling books with elaborate graphs and charts and bundling them with expensive CD-ROMs and workbooks that professors often ignore. 

For many disciplines like math, the reports’ authors charge, the goal of the new edition is not to improve instruction, but to limit the number of used books in circulation to maximize sales.  

New editions are often virtual carbon copies of past ones, with a different order and review questions, said UC Berkeley Calculus Professor Jenny Harrison at a Thursday press conference. “It’s just cutting and pasting sections,” she said holding up the fifth edition of Calculus Early Transcendentals—which sells new for $122 at the UC Bookstore. “This book cost Cal students $150,000. I could do this in a couple of afternoons.” Last year the fourth edition of the book cost students $90 used. 

Once the new edition is released however, Harrison said, there aren’t enough old editions to go around, meaning the professor must order a new book. “We have control over which book we have in our class but we can’t assign a book that doesn’t exist,” she said. 

The CALPIRG report is based on interviews with 156 faculty and 521 students at 10 public colleges and universities in California and Oregon. An average new textbook, according to the report, costs $102.44, 58 percent higher than the price of a used textbook, $64.80. Also, 65 percent of faculty reported never or rarely using the bundled CD-ROMs and workbooks that now accompany half of all new books. 

Data from the National Association of College Stores supports CALPIRG’s claims. Over the past three years, the textbook price index has jumped by an average of seven percent, compared to 3.4 percent for other books. 

Not everyone thinks the textbook business is crooked. Cliff Ewert, spokesperson for Follett Higher Education Group, manager of the UC Berkeley bookstore, said the price of new textbooks is fair. “There are no economies of scale in the textbook business,” he said. “A text book requires a tremendous amount of research and editorial review for a book that prints about 20,000 copies and is often printed and bound with higher quality materials.” 

Despite being the largest campus bookstore management firm in the country with 680 stores, Follett doesn’t try to flex its muscles with publishers or professors, Ewert said. “We believe in total academic freedom for the faculty. It’s always up to the professors.” 

But a manager at Ned’s Books, which sells textbooks to UC Berkeley students, said professors are often unwittingly sold textbooks by sales representatives without knowing about the increased costs passed on to students and potential losses to the stores. 

“We’re the ones getting killed,” he said. “Margins on textbooks are lower than potato chips.”  

Campus bookstores have traditionally made their money from buying and selling used books, but with the rapid turnover in textbooks, Ned’s has fewer used books to sell. 

Students are beginning to rebel against excessive pricing on all fronts. At Berkeley, ASUC Senator Misha Leybovich instituted a used book swap last year that that his year hosted 2,000 students at Sproul Plaza trading and selling their used books for better prices offered by the bookstores. 

Other students interviewed reported buying their books online from discount retailers ctextbook.com and half.com. 

To get reduced prices, Kruth wants to get faculty members to sign a statement that textbooks are overpriced and to lobby for online textbooks and supplements to books when new scholarship becomes available.  

Most students interviewed at the campus bookstore, however, seemed resigned to high prices. “It doesn’t hurt me that much said Junior Thom Malowski. “My parents pay for school. They’re more disgusted than I am.”