Book Costs Shock College Students, Families

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More than a dozen states are considering laws that would restrict price increases for college textbooks. With many books now costing more than $100, college students and their families are facing huge bills on top of tuition costs.

DON GONYEA, host:

Time now for business news. Have you seen college textbook prices lately?

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: College textbooks can cost more than $100 apiece. Their price has become such a big issue that state lawmakers across the country have considered legislation that would cap costs.

NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ reporting:

College students spend over $6 billion a year on textbooks, and it doesn't matter what school they attend - big, small, private or public - textbook prices have been going up and up and up. So a visit to any campus bookstore these days can be downright sobering.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to University Book Center. As the official bookstore for the campus, we carry the entire book list.

SANCHEZ: First-year students on this orientation tour at the University of Maryland, for example, are looking at a $550 bill for textbooks this fall semester. And they're not happy about it.

Ms. ELAINA CALMAN(ph) (Student, University of Maryland): My name is Elaina Calman. And it's kind of a monopoly. There's no one controlling the prices. And you can't do anything about it because there's no other alternative. They can just raise prices because there's no other way to get what you need.

Mr. BRAD DUWIG(ph) (Student, University of Maryland): I'm Brad Duwig, and I have about 17 credits and some labs, so I know if I bought them new, it would be over $500. But if you look around, you can get them for cheaper, and there's are a few places you can go, you know, online and other stores.

SANCHEZ: Students who go online do find cheaper textbooks, but they usually cannot get their hands on the list of books that professors will require - at least not in time for them to shop around. That's just the way it's set up, says Duwig.

Mr. DUWIG: Well, I think when you have something that the supplier knows that people need, and the demand isn't going to go away, that a lot of these - the price comes from markups all over, from publisher or store. Basically, their demand is secure, so that gives them a lot of leverage.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

SANCHEZ: Here at the University of Maryland in College Park, the bookstore is run by Barnes and Noble, which stocks about 5,600 titles. The single most expensive book on the shelves: an upper-level chemistry textbook that Barnes and Noble buys from the publisher for about $155, and then sells to students for $220 - a 25 percent markup. Not unusual in the textbook retail business.

Unidentified Woman: Make sure to fill these out. It's for a chance for free books.

SANCHEZ: The tour of the bookstore has ended, and one of the tour guides hands everyone a raffle ticket. The prize: a semester's worth of free textbooks, easily worth $500.

Unidentified Woman: Hey guys. Fill these out. It's for a chance for free books. Free books. You need them.

SANCHEZ: So who's making out like a bandit with these high textbook prices? Nora Shumaye(ph), a first year English major, thinks she knows.

Ms. NORA SHUMAYE (Student, University of Maryland): Publishers. Whoever is publishing them. I mean, that's what makes the most sense to me.

Mr. BRUCE HILDEBRAND (Association of American Publishers): The data we have don't support that contention.

SANCHEZ: Bruce Hildebrand is with the Association of American Publishers. He says publishers set the net price of a textbook, the price bookstores pay. Net price is based on expected sales, competition from other publishers, and huge production costs.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: You can't compare the book that I used that was black and white and had few pictures and few charts and a textbook that comes in full color with numerous graphics that's highly designed. The point is is these books have been developed at massive expense to support them and the colleges they attend.

SANCHEZ: Hildebrand says it's a myth that publishers - or retailers for that matter - are ramming expensive textbooks down students' throats.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: If they want the black and white textbook, we still sell them. And we'll ship them just as quickly as we will any other book.

SANCHEZ: Professors, in fact, don't have to pick the most expensive version of any textbook. They're free to choose cheaper versions, too.

Mr. HILDEBRAND: The choice is in the hand of the faculty. It's not in the hand of the student. And the majority of the faculty are highly concerned that the students coming into their classroom are not ready.

SANCHEZ: So what professors are asking publishers to do, says Hildebrand, is develop more instructional tools as supplements to textbooks - CD ROMs, self-assessment software, Web-based tutorials. These are not just bells and whistles, says Hildebrand. Professors believe students really do learn more from a textbook that includes technology that they're comfortable with.

That may be true, says Katherine Soo Yung(ph), a textbook author and professor at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. But that still doesn't justify producing textbooks that students can barely afford.

Professor KATHERINE SOO YUNG (Textbook Author and Professor at Mansfield University, Pennsylvania): As far as my students go at Mansfield, students are pretty much first generation college students, and they struggle to come to college. That was part of the impetus for trying to write the first textbook and say, hey, I really want to produce something that these students can afford and that's just as good as the other things that are out there.

SANCHEZ: Yung teaches four courses every semester in oral and non-oral communication. The textbooks she's written are required reading not just in her classroom, but in communication courses at several universities. Her best seller sells for $18 to $20. A comparable book with the same information - but longer, with a few more bells and whistles - sells for $60.

Prof. YUNG: And so, I think what has happened, and what I've seen over the 20 years that I've been teaching, is that textbooks keep getting bigger. And my colleagues and I laugh every time we get a new advertisement that says, oh, the new oral comm book or human communication book is now 598 pages. And we say, why? You don't need that much to teach the kinds of concepts that first semester students need to know.

SANCHEZ: Now, you'd think that Yung's textbook would sell better than the more expensive one, but it hasn't.

Prof. YUNG: And I have to say, I've been a little disappointed that the book hasn't taken off more than it did, because I was naïve in the fact that I thought if I produced something for under $20, everybody across America would be thrilled. And that was completely wrong. I know my father said to me, you know, your book is too cheap. And people are going to think it's not good if it's inexpensive. You need to hike the price. And I said, no, I don't want to do that.

SANCHEZ: The bottom line, says Yung, if somebody doesn't rein in textbook prices, government will. Just like it's trying to rein in college tuition.

Seventeen states have already passed or are considering legislation to make the pricing of textbooks more transparent, and to control costs.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Don Gonyea.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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