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Price of College Textbooks Faulted

Publishers drive up cost with unneeded editions, a research group alleges. Industry denies charge.

January 30, 2004|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

College students, whether they major in philosophy or physics, often ponder the same big question: Why do our textbooks cost so much?

A California student activist and research group joined the intensifying debate over that perennial campus issue Thursday. It released a report lambasting textbook publishers for what it alleged are marketing gimmicks that inflate prices. Publishers denied that contention.

Students are paying an average of $898 for books this school year, according to the report from the California Student Public Interest Research Group. That is equivalent to nearly one-sixth the cost of the average mandatory fees for University of California undergraduates.

The study found that new editions of textbooks cost an average of $102.44 compared with $64.80 for a used copy. But it also contended that used copies can be hard to find.

The report, titled "Rip-Off 101," was based on surveys of 521 students and 156 faculty members, mainly at UC campuses. The study said that:

* Faculty members complain that publishers drive up costs by releasing unnecessary new -- and higher-priced -- editions of textbooks. Among the faculty surveyed, 76% said that at least half of the time, the new editions are not justified academically.

* Half of the new texts purchased by students come bundled with additional instructional materials such as CD-ROMs and workbooks, which raise the cost. Yet 65% of the faculty say they rarely or never used the extra materials.

* Among students this past fall term who looked for used textbooks, 59% said they couldn't find a single one that was available for their courses.

Mark Thornton, a UCLA student and state board chairman of the research group, said at a news conference at UCLA that "the bottom line about this whole issue is that textbook publishers are ripping students off. At a time when students are paying more for their education and to go to school, it's incredible that the textbook industry wants to play games like this with students' pocketbooks."

The report comes as the cost of higher education is heating up as a national issue. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to contain rising tuition, and some of the Democratic presidential candidates have said they are considering ways to do the same.

In California, Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) announced this week that she will introduce legislation to combat high textbook costs. She said her bill would encourage publishers to drop some of the practices cited in the report, including providing textbooks bundled with other materials and issuing unnecessary new editions. Liu, head of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said the bill also would "ask that faculty consider price when making textbook selection decisions."

Judith Platt, a spokeswoman for the Assn. of American Publishers, which represents publishers of college texts and other books, attacked the report and denied that publishers put out unnecessary new editions.

Although Platt acknowledged that many students probably spend about $898 annually as cited in the report, she said the other conclusions are questionable because of the limited number of students and faculty surveyed.

She said that faculty should pay more attention to prices when requiring books for classes and that new textbook retailers and used-textbook sellers share responsibility for the prices students pay. In addition, students who want to buy unbundled books at lower prices can find them online, Platt said.

Platt said that publishers provide excellent value for students' money. A textbook "is probably, with exception of the professor, the single most important resource that a student has in mastering that course material.... We really are talking about the finest educational materials in the world."

At UCLA, however, some students weren't convinced that their books are a good deal.

Elke Jacobsen, a second-year European studies major, complained that sometimes courses require a new edition. "So you can't even try to get a used book somewhere. [New texts] are $100, or something like that. It's a pain," she said.

A new edition she recently bought for a biopsychology class, Jacobsen said, "doesn't seem like a whole lot of new information, but they make us buy this new thing anyway."

Sara Han, a third-year student majoring in psychology and English, said she spent about $300 on texts and other reading materials this quarter. She said her professors sometimes rely on "readers" -- collections of reprinted articles or other materials compiled by bookstores -- instead of textbooks, but added that they are expensive, too. Plus, she said, "you can't even sell it" at the end of the term because assigned readings tend to change every quarter.

At UCLA and around the country, students are exploring new ways to purchase books to save money. Many have headed to the Internet for used books, and some buy new books from retailers overseas that charge less.

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