Extras, new editions drive up college textbook costs

Posted: Wednesday, April 21, 2004

PORTLAND, Ore. College freshman Amy Connolly knows not to judge a book by its cover.

Instead, she judges the newest Calculus 101 text by what's inside: a CD-ROM, flashy color photographs and a bubble-wrapped study manual. All those extras bring the price tag to $126, she says.

''The textbook companies are adding bells and whistles that students don't need it's making the cost of education unaffordable,'' said Connolly, a student at Portland State University.

A study spearheaded by students in Oregon and California found that the cost of textbooks has skyrocketed because of the bundling of ancillary products like CD-ROMs. It also claims that publishers roll out new editions year after year, forcing students to buy new books although the content scarcely changes.

Pat Schroeder, president of the Association of American Publishers and a former congresswoman, said the report was one-sided and flawed.

Fifteen members of Congress have asked for an investigation into the pricing policies of U.S textbook publishers. The Government Accounting Office, which is the investigative arm of Congress, has given the request high priority, said Cornelia Ashby, the director of the office's education branch.

The study was conducted by the California Student Public Interest Research Group, Oregon Student Public Interest Research Group and the OSPIRG Foundation. The groups conducted a survey of the most widely assigned books in the fall of 2003 at 10 public colleges in Oregon and California.

According to the study, college students today spend about $900 on textbooks every year. On average, textbook publishers keep books on the shelf for 3 1/2 years before issuing a new one. Over half of faculty members surveyed said the new editions are ''rarely'' to ''never'' justified.

''Calculus hasn't changed much since Isaac Newton. The question needs to be asked do we really need a new edition every few years?'' said U.S. Rep. David Wu, an Oregon Democrat who was the first lawmaker to ask for the investigation last fall.

Textbook publishers say the students' recommendations, which include a five-year minimum before the release of a new edition, fail to take the need for updates into account.

''Imagine a government textbook that had Bill Clinton as president. Or an accounting textbook that didn't include Enron. Or a biology textbook that didn't have cloning or stem cell research. The world changes so fast,'' said Jessica Dee Rohm, spokeswoman for Thomson Learning, the Stamford, Conn.-based textbook giant.

Publishers say that even if the subject is calculus or art history, and by nature doesn't change as radically as genetics, the revised editions are always different.

''We have a revision diary that's hundreds of pages long for that book we invested $300,000 of research to change it,'' said Rohm, referring to the Calculus 101 book that Connolly held up at a news conference in Portland on Wednesday.

Rohm said that the information age has changed everything, and the CD-ROM is only the tip of the iceberg in staying on top of that trend.

The spiraling price of textbooks has led to all sorts of strategies to reduce the financial hit, said Merriah Fairchild of the California Student Public Interest Research Group.

''I know stories of students pooling together to buy a single book students just can't afford it anymore,'' Fairchild said.

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