Textbook cost worries send students online

by Beacon Staff • January 30, 2008

Each semester, students go back to the familiar routine of picking up their books, standing in line and spending a fortune. The rising costs of college textbooks are becoming a financial frustration as students stuff their book bags and empty their wallets.

Among students interviewed, the average price of a semester's textbooks was about $350 and according to a recent report by the California and Oregon State Public Interest Research Groups, textbooks are elevating in price more than four times the inflation rate on most other consumer products, and wholesale prices have risen 62 percent since 1994.

The mounting costs are generally a result of publishing companies constantly revamping and creating new editions of their texts, which allows them to increase the price each year. The inclusion of supplemental materials, such as CD-ROMs, also brings a higher price tag. The shorter shelf life of these books makes it difficult for students to get a decent refund at the end of the semester.

Without textbook price listings, both professors and students are unaware of the true costs of materials in their classrooms.

"My teacher was astonished when she realized how much our Law and Ethics book cost," said sophomore broadcast journalism major Lindsey Alston. "She couldn't believe that it was $100 and almost felt guilty about charging us that amount of money for the class."

A recent poll taken by the California Public Interest Research Group reveals that about 94 percent of professors would order cheaper textbooks for their students if prices were made available to them, and some professors at Emerson have said they would follow that trend.

Research Writing teacher Kim Liao said that she felt that while textbooks are expensive, they do contain valuable information that can be useful for the class. Liao, however, said that she would be willing to research other options if more information was presented.

"If an adequate alternative were being offered at a cheaper price, I would be happy to use that one instead," Liao said. "Textbooks are not usually emphasized in communication between faculty and the Emerson bookstore. Perhaps if the bookstore were able to reply to our textbook requests with an estimated total of textbook costs to the students, some faculty would take notice."

While purchasing used books from the school bookstore is the common remedy to the painful price quagmire, many students feel compelled to find alternative ways to avoid a huge dent in their savings. Some students have decided to split the cost and share one textbook three ways by photocopying necessary pages while others are trading books and purchasing them for cheap from other students.

Many Emerson students are evading the bookstore's prices by ordering texts online. Freshman print journalism major Meredith Rabs, however, found faults with her Internet shopping.

"While I did save money, many books still haven't arrived, which is incredibly inconvenient," she said. "It would be nice if the books in the bookstore were more reasonably priced so that I could have had all my books when my classes started."

Another issue irking students is that many assigned textbooks are never used in class. Freshman TV production major Carly Filmanski said she bought three books that she never used.

"Our teacher required us to buy a $25 play, and we never discussed the play even once," she said. "I feel that many of the textbooks are completely useless to the class and a complete waste of money."

This issue has not gone unnoticed by Massachusetts state legislators. Last October, college students, faculty and administrators packed the Massachusetts State House and testified for the Affordable Textbooks Bill (HB1200) in front of the Joint Committee on Higher Education. The bill, which was filed by Representative Steven Walsh from Lynn, mandates that publishing companies list prices, prior copyright dates and substantial changes between editions of textbooks to college faculty.

Listings of books offered in paperback and without bundled supplements would be required as well. This would allow professors to view and consider the costs before ordering anything for their classes.

The Joint Committee on Higher Education favored the bill. Currently, the Ways and Means Committee, whose duty is to consider all legislation affecting the finances of the state of Massachusetts, is reviewing the bill. While the holiday break has prolonged the committee's assessment, a decision is expected soon.

The goal of the Affordable Textbook Bill would be to lift some of the financial burden off students' shoulders. In the meantime, students and teachers offered their own solutions for the problem.

Speech communication professor Heather Erickson feels that students should not be charged more for "new" editions that do not differ from previous ones that contain useless information to the class. The organizational and political communications department took a page from Cengage Learning group. The company allows professors to make their own textbook so it is be more relevant and useful throughout the entire semester.

"We could take from various speech texts and put them together to fit the class." Erickson said. "While we're still working out the kinks, it has much better reception from students for both usefulness and price," she said. "Price was a huge concern for us ... It was nice that we were able to really control how much the students had to pay."

However, until the bill is passed students will have to continue to find other and more inventive ways to get their hands on the required text without spending a large ammount. Freshman film major Laura Heinemann suggested another way.

"I think the college should have an option to rent textbooks," said Heinmann. "It would save students a lot of money."