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New law aims at textbook sticker shock

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New federal regulations are making textbook prices more readily available to students and faculty — one step in managing college costs.

The new pricing regulations, included in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, went into effect last month.

The regulations require that:
• publishers unbundle textbooks from workbooks and CDs
• publishing representatives tell faculty members how much a book costs during their sales pitch
• universities list required textbooks and their prices with course listings during registration.

A link on the Office of Admissions and Records website lists this semester’s textbooks and their prices at the UIC Bookstore.

These new rules may prompt more cost-conscious textbook choices, but it’s important not to overlook educational quality for price, said Alan Malter, associate professor of managerial studies.

“Transparency is good, and the more price information students have, that makes for a better market,” he said.

“However, when students see just the price of the books, there’s no way for them to know which of those books are any good. Professors, hopefully, picked out the best book for what they want to teach, not just the cheapest book that was available.”

Saad Jamil, president of Undergraduate Student Government, said the law is a step in the right direction but doesn’t completely solve the problem of high textbook costs.

“Anything done to drop prices for textbooks is a good thing,” he said.

“On that note, it’s important for us to keep in mind that this in no way lowered textbook prices, it has simply allowed students the means of more easily obtaining books from elsewhere.

“I know if students had their say outright, books would simply be cheaper.”

Alternatives to make textbooks more affordable
UIC student trustee Roshina Khan said there are alternatives that could make textbooks more affordable for students. “Students have enough expenses with rising tuition costs, and spending hundreds of dollars for textbooks just isn’t a fair expectation,” she said.

“Professors should try to work with older editions, especially when they are very similar to the more expensive, newer editions. There should also be more of an effort by publishers to put entire textbooks online, which would save them the costs of publishing and reduce prices for students.”

The regulations could have a long-term effect on textbook publishers, encouraging them to lower their prices if students choose to enroll in classes based on course materials, Malter said.

“Students are economically rational — they are on a budget and if they see that one course has books and materials that will cost them significantly less, I would think a lot of them would sign up for whatever course gets them the same credit for the cheapest cost,” he said.

“Textbook publishers may realize that certain books are being selected against because they are too expensive.”

Both Khan and Jamil said that knowing prices ahead of time will likely encourage students to start their search for cheaper textbooks earlier.

“I do not expect students to avoid picking a certain class over another because of textbook prices,” Jamil said.

“Usually, the price of a textbook is just an unpleasant discovery. Most people take a class because they have to.”

Factors in retail pricing
Malter said he asks publishers how much textbooks cost when he’s planning his courses, but they often cannot provide a quote because they don’t know the retail value.

The UIC Bookstore usually marks the price up by about 21 percent to 25 percent, with the national average at 25 percent, said Loreen Maxfield, director of retail operations.

Textbooks that have fewer graphic elements often cost less, Malter said. Some publishers, such as Four-letter Press and Atomic Dog Publishing, offer cheaper books at the expense of visually engaging design.

“Students would have to vote as consumers and say that they don’t mind having a boring-looking textbook in the name of saving money,” he said. “If students want more visuals and less text, it’s a more expensive book.”

New textbooks are priced higher because updated editions and an abundance of used books will stall future sales, Malter said.

“There are significant textbook sales in the first year, but then there’s a supply of used books that float around the marketplace,” he said.

“Students are pressed for cash, and even if they get a little back at the end of the semester, they are glad to sell those books back.”

Book buyback prices are based on demand, Maxfield said.

If a professor will use the textbook again the next semester, she said, students could see 30 percent to 50 percent of their money back.

If the book won’t be used again, an outside vendor uses marketplace demand as an indicator to determine the resell price, she said.


Related story

Book rentals a new option at campus bookstore


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