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Textbooks: the big squeeze: increasing costs, often fueled by frequent updates and high-tech extras many professors don't use, put students in a bind.

So you think that best-selling novel is expensive at $35 retail? Imagine the 19-year-old college student who needs a science textbook that costs three times as much. That student is not reading for pleasure; she's working, and acquiring the book probably makes the difference between earning an adequate grade or earning an outstanding one.

The once-predictable college textbook business has attracted a lot of media attention in the last few years because of a monetary fever. In nearly 20 years, the price of college textbooks has tripled, according to a 2005 U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) study. The study found that college students spent an average of $900 per academic year on textbooks, up from $300 in 1987.

"Every semester, I spend at least five hundred dollars on textbooks," says Howard University senior Juliet M. Beverly. That's about $1,000 a school year, and just slightly more than the $900 average quoted in the GAO study.

The added costs have been attributed to technology. CD-ROMs and Web sites developed by publishers to supplement many textbooks. Instructors asked for the added features, say the publishers, and the added costs are passed on to the students. But some of the fancy features are underutilized in the actual teaching process.

Students pursue multiple strategies to get the books they need: Buy that $100 textbook new from the college store if necessary. Or buy it new for less online, or for even less used, whether online, from a store or from a classmate. Or try the most risky scheme: Get through the class without the books because you can't afford them.

The State Council of Higher Education for Virginia reports that about 40 percent of students did without some of the required books for at least a semester. Nationally, about 60 percent of college students choose not to buy all their course materials, says Jennifer Libertowski, a spokeswoman for the National Association of College Stores (NACS).

Beverly, 22, says she has fortunately been able to purchase her required course texts, yet she has to be savvy. "If I'm lucky," Beverly says, "I can buy books used from friends, or trade books with someone who has had the same class.

New Use for Facebook

" is good for that. If I need a statistics book, and someone else needs my Spanish book, maybe we can trade," Beverly adds, referring to the Web site better known as a meeting place for young people. Beverly says the site has a textbook exchange link.

Aneesha Perkins, 20, a senior at Hampton University, says, "When I started college, I bought from the bookstore. By my sophomore year, I bought off the Internet because I discovered the books were cheaper. If a book was one-hundred-and-twenty dollars new, I might spend fifty. Most books were used but not damaged." Perkins credited a professor with advising her to use the Web site to save money. Now she frequently uses Perkins's prized purchase is a $2 used astronomy book that would have cost $70 new.

About 10 percent of all college textbook sales (based on 2004 figures) come from online traders such as,, and, according to the 2006--07 edition of Media & Culture (Bedford/St. Martin's), a college textbook on mass media.

Total college textbook sales amount to $4 billion, or 14 percent of all book sales, according to a 2005 article in Publishers Weekly.

Before the late 1980s, when computer technology radically altered textbooks, college books were sold mostly out of stores to a predictable stream of students. Now, with bricks-and-mortar stores and online booksellers competing for customers, plus increased bartering among students, college bookstores must operate more efficiently, says Charles A. Wooding, director of auxiliary enterprises at Hampton University, whose responsibilities include the campus bookstores.

Indeed, textbooks are overpriced, says Wooding. He knows, "Because I pay the bills. We don't buy the volume that the online booksellers purchase, so we pay more. A book we sell for $100 might cost $78 on

"Also, some faculty will order more text-books than they need; then they change the book or get a package deal and forget to tell us. That

increases costs," Wooding says. "This drains my budget. We have to be judicious in our ordering."

He wants more professors to understand that selecting appropriate textbooks is their job, not a task to push on department heads, who in turn task office secretaries.

Those High-Tech Extras

According to the GAO report, textbook costs skyrocketed over the past two decades because of added features like CD-ROMs and workbooks that direct students to Web sites. Furthermore, more books are updated with new content every six months to a year.

"I appreciate updates," says Beverly of Howard University, "but I'd really appreciate it if the professor looked through the book and used the [new] material.

"As a college student, you want everything to be cost-effective," she says. "Saving ten dollars on a book makes a difference."

Perkins of Hampton University says the CD-ROM in her new humanities textbook was useful: "We did use it, especially to prepare for the final exam. A lot of it was music. A CD was in my marketing book, too," Perkins adds. "No work was assigned [from the disc]. "Yes, in that case my money was wasted."

Kim Pearson, a professor at the College of New Jersey in Trenton, says, "A lot of my colleagues don't know how to use technology, but they're coming along. Accrediting agencies now require that some attention be paid to multimedia in Education, English and Journalism. Teachers feel obliged to get up to speed."

State legislators who read the GAO report have initiated actions to see that students can afford the books they really need, because they believe it could be hazardous for students to skip buying a required book.

"I don't know about you, but I don't want a nurse [examining me] who couldn't afford her anatomy textbook," Jesse Ferguson, executive director of student advocacy group Virginia 21, told the Daily Press of Hampton Roads, Virginia, in January.

Libertowski of NACS, which represents 3,200 of 4,800 college bookstores, says, "We've seen a lot of increasing legislation on the state levels--proposed caps on the cost of textbooks, or [requirements for] putting the ISBNs and reading lists online [before classes start], or unbundling the textbooks from the CDs and workbooks."

Antwan Clinton, director of the Howard University Bookstore, says the store is increasing the ratio of used books to new books. In 2004-2005, 94 percent of Howard's textbook sales were new, out of step with the average industry mix of 55 new and 45 used, he explains. For the 2005-06 school year, the used book share increased from 6 percent to 13 percent. Clinton also says that college stores break even on books and profit from caps, sweatshirts and related items.

Many students may have to channel the bargain-hunting skills they use to buy clothes or other consumer goods into getting good deals on textbooks. Or there may be the rare sibling like Juliet Beverly's brother Matthew, a freshman at Howard. "Hopefully" says Juliet, "I saved my brother a few hundred dollars."

Wayne Dawkins teaches journalism at Hampton University and is president of August Press in Newport News, Virginia.

Up and Up and Up ...

The cost of college textbooks has tripled in the last 20 years, according to a 2005 U.S. Government Accountability Office study. That means an introductory biology textbook that currently retails for $131.95 was $43.45 in 1986, and an English Composition workbook that now retails for $65.95 cost $21.76 two decades ago.

Students who buy the biology book online from save 20 percent and pay $105.56. Amazon offers the same deal on the English book: $52.75, or 20 percent off.

Biology: The Unity and Diversity of Life, with CD-ROM, by Cecie Start and Ralph Taggart; and English: The Wadsworth Handbook, by Laurie G, Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell, Both books are published by Thomson Higher Education.
COPYRIGHT 2006 Cox, Matthews & Associates
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2006, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Dawkins, Wayne
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2006
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