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When you can't afford to go buy the book

November 07, 2006|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

College student Rob Christensen has tried nearly every trick in the book to save money on the books.

Last year, Christensen said, he borrowed a psychology text from his university library and kept it all semester. It dawned on him that the fines (which turned out to be $8) would be less than the price (around $40).

Christensen also has borrowed volumes from friends, split book costs with classmates and occasionally skipped buying expensive texts, hoping to get by without doing all the reading. He often shops for discounts online, sometimes snaring older editions or versions that aren't packaged with software or study guides that raise the cost.

Christensen attends school at a time when "Sociology: Your Compass for a New World" lists for $108.95, "Principles of Economics" for $150.95 and "Marketing Management" for $153.35.

"It's a tough fight to get textbooks for an affordable price," said Christensen, a Humboldt State University senior who hopes to become a high school history teacher.

The era of heading to the college bookstore and compliantly buying everything that a professor deems required reading -- to the extent that those days ever really existed -- is receding into the pages of history. The escalating costs of higher education and the ease of online shopping have spurred students to seek money-saving alternatives.

Three years ago, 43% of the students surveyed by the National Assn. of College Stores indicated that they "always purchase required textbooks." Last fall the figure sank to 35%.

Even though not buying a book might hurt their grades, "some just roll the dice and hope," said Albert N. Greco, a Fordham University business professor who studies the college textbook business.

UCLA economics professor Lee Ohanian recalls that when he started teaching in 1992, "there was never any question" about purchasing texts. "Now, I receive literally dozens of questions about whether the book is 'really needed.' "

Still, a College Board report released last month estimated that students at public four-year colleges are spending $942 on books and supplies this school year. Another analysis found that hardcover college textbooks are selling, new, for an average of about $120.

Finding ways to cope is particularly crucial at California's community colleges. About half of the state's full-time community college attendees pay no attendance fees through a program intended to help low-income students, "but they still have to come up with the money for textbooks," said Bruce D. Hamlett, chief consultant to the California Assembly's Higher Education Committee.

Some of those disadvantaged students sign up for Extended Opportunity Program and Services, a counseling and tutoring initiative that also provides money for textbooks.

Sandra Escobedo, 19, who studies nursing at Pierce College in Woodland Hills, receives $250 a semester for books under the program. But she also uses other tactics to save money.

This semester Escobedo dropped a psychology course because she already had too many expensive textbooks to buy and couldn't afford another $100 tome. For a political science class last spring, she bought just one of the five books assigned.

Even that text, she said, was a waste of money. "I never opened the book, and I passed that class," said Escobedo, who relied on the notes she took in lectures.

Some students fire up the photocopy machine. Last fall's survey by the college store association found that 14% of students polled admitted that they sometimes photocopy a book or other copyrighted materials.

Another technique: Order from overseas websites to buy cheaper foreign editions.

The trends frustrate college bookstore operators vying for the estimated $7 billion a year that students spend on new and used texts.

Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the college store association, noted that students increasingly balk at buying textbooks even as they gobble up iPods and cellphones.

"There's definitely a value shift," she said.

Textbook prices have troubled state and federal lawmakers as well as student activists. The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported last year that college textbook prices have climbed at twice the rate of inflation over the last two decades. Members of the House Education and Workforce Committee in June called for a one-year study that, among other things, is to recommend ways to ease the burden of paying for texts.

A handful of states have passed related legislation. California's law, signed two years ago, was an advisory measure calling on publishers and college governing boards and faculty to pursue ways to help students save money on books.

Amid that pressure, textbook publishers offer such reduced-price options as black-and-white texts and electronic books that can be read online.

With e-books, students lose their access to the material at the end of the term but typically plunk down 50% less than for hardcover.

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