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Dr. Arthur F. Kirk, Jr. Headshot

Textbooks Costs Continue as Barrier to Higher Education

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Stock Shop Photography LLC via Getty Images
Stock Shop Photography LLC via Getty Images

Co-authored by Susan Colaric, Ph.D., Assistant Vice President of Instructional Technology at Saint Leo University.

Higher education has been intensely scrutinized recently for high and increasing tuition prices. Rightly so, as the U.S. Government Accountability Office estimated average annual increases of seven percent from 2002 to 2012.

But nearly on the same pace is the rising cost of textbooks, which during the same time period went up at an average annual rate of six percent. While students no doubt have been aware of the issue all along, cringing at the start of each semester as they tally the costs for course materials, legislators have finally caught on.

In November, Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL) and Al Franken (D-MN) sponsored a bill named the Affordable College Textbook Act, which, if passed, would establish a grant program to make textbooks available online with free access. Digital textbooks can be updated to reflect new information, whereas hard copies were always at the mercy of the latest edition.

It is encouraging that legislators are at least aware of perhaps the greatest hidden expense for college students. It is not uncommon for a full-time student to spend more than $1,000 for textbooks in a single semester.

The price tag has become a barrier to a quality education and plagued completion rates. Students cannot afford to spend this much money on books and as a result are ill-equipped to meet course requirements. A 2011 survey by the Student Public Interest Research Group found that 70 percent of students had not purchased a required textbook due to costs. Even those who don't fail the course outright are still discouraged by below average performance. Many students take fewer courses each term -- even when their tuition is paid by their employer -- because they cannot afford the cost of the required textbooks.

It has long been known that students now seek other options beyond the campus bookstore to find the lowest price, but purchasing or renting from online retailers must allow time and expense for shipping and processing. Delays are common and classes are underway sometimes for weeks before textbooks arrive.

There is no denying that these are significant problems and searches for an adequate solution have been well-documented. Unfortunately, pilot projects across the country have thus far come up empty handed, and it is likely that the Affordable College Textbook Act will suffer the same fate.

Most institutions follow one of two models for textbooks: student-purchase model or university-provided model. Each has their advantages and shortcomings.

The student purchase model allows individuals to seek additional sources for the textbooks. Borrowing a textbook or splitting the cost with a friend can be effective ways of doing that. The downside is that students can also frequently purchase the wrong book by mistake and suddenly the cost incurred rises again.

The university-provided model obviously ensures students obtain the right materials (or ensures they have the materials for the 70 percent who already responded they've taken a course without the book). The downside is that the freedom to comparison shop is now gone..

Given such a Catch 22, what's an institution to do?

At Saint Leo, we have actively pursued various programs to reduce textbook costs to students, including:

• Creating a master syllabus mandating common books for all sections of a course

• Developing customized textbooks where only the chapters and materials applicable to the course are provided and the cost is lowered

• Providing book orders early to bookstores

• Providing options to students for new, used, and digital materials with clear pricing information for each

• Implementing textbook rental programs

• Offering a guaranteed buy-back program

• Providing financial aid vouchers so students can purchase books before their financial aid is distributed

• Using library resources in place of traditional textbooks

These are effective programs that run with very little institutional obligations.

While the bill introduced in the Senate will help bring awareness to this growing problem, I'm skeptical of its tangible benefit if passed. The solution to growing textbook costs does not sit in Washington. It sits on every college and university campus across the country.

One of the biggest factors in the inflation of textbook prices is the revolving door that has become annual edition updates. These changes add no educational value to the book and are simply used by the industry to sell more copies by killing the used textbook market.

The answer to this epidemic is for faculty members to have a real understanding of the texts they utilize and understand when they and their students are being manipulated.

In 2014, finding ways to ease the burden of textbook costs for our students will be a major focus for Saint Leo University.