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Easing the Textbook Pinch

March 16, 2004

Despite the Monday march in Sacramento by thousands of community college students, there's little a cut-costs-everywhere state can do to avoid raising their fees for a second straight year. The state kept fees at an unrealistically low $11 a unit for too many years. And even at the proposed $26 per unit, a California community college would be laughably cheap compared with virtually all other states, which typically charge $50 or more.

Still, the Legislature has in its hands a practical new tool to ease the burden for these students as well as those in the two public university systems, which also face steep fee increases. AB 2678 seeks to bring down the atrocious cost of college textbooks. This isn't just a minor fix. The average college student pays $800-plus a year for texts -- more than a community college's fees.

In recent months, college bookstores and a student activist group have drawn public attention to textbook companies' arcane pricing practices. Publishers sell many of the same titles, with the same material, for far less money overseas. They defend two-tiered pricing by saying foreign students won't pay the higher prices. Oh.

Publishers frequently put out new editions barely different from the old ones; this keeps students from buying used books. As a UCLA professor wondered, just how often does calculus change such that a new text is needed every few years? And texts often come "bundled" with software or workbooks that professors don't use but that students end up paying for anyway.

Students have long needed legislation of the kind offered by Assemblyman Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood), which would have public colleges and universities set up rental libraries for textbooks. Consider an $80 text. What if that book were used for four years -- eight semesters? That's $10 per student rather than $80. Even adding administrative costs, there are major savings to be had.

Less demand also could push publishers into lowering prices. Think it can't be done? Though it denies that consumer pressure prompted the change, college publishing giant Thomson Higher Education recently announced plans to produce a U.S. history text (previously retailing at $90) with fewer photos and illustrations and charge less than one-third its usual wholesale price.

A related bill, AB 2477 by Assemblywoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge), "urges" textbook publishers to unbundle their textbooks and disclose what changes have been made in a new edition. It encourages college faculty to consider costs when assigning texts. Though Liu's legislation requires no action on the part of teachers or companies, it puts colleges and publishers on notice that students have a powerful -- and needed -- ally on this issue.

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