August 27, 2008

Textbook Costs

By Senator Lena C. Taylor

By this point, it should be obvious how valuable a post-secondary degree is.  Everywhere —from this week’s Democratic National Convention in Denver, to board rooms and interview rooms around Wisconsin—there’s a growing emphasis on higher education.

The statistics tell the story:  Employees with four-year college degrees earn 60% more than workers with only high school diplomas; over 80% of newly-created jobs require an Associate’s Degree or higher.  It’s not that there aren’t good, family-supporting jobs for people without post-secondary educations.  There are.  But those jobs are harder to come by now than in years past, and they’ll only get scarcer in the years ahead.

An advanced degree is increasingly a prerequisite for success in the new economy.  Unfortunately for many young people, though, advanced degrees are also increasingly expensive.  Across the country, higher education costs are skyrocketing, outstripping financial aid increases and outpacing family budgets.  All too often, capable, qualified students can’t pursue an advanced degree, not because they don’t deserve it or don’t want it, but because they simply can’t afford it.  Post-secondary education is becoming a luxury good, beyond the grasp of needy students.

The increased cost of post-secondary schooling isn’t just due to tuition hikes.  Almost every aspect of higher education—from room and board to segregated fees—has gotten significantly more expensive over the past decade.  That goes, especially, for textbooks.  A recent report from the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance revealed that the average student spends between $700 and $1,000 per year on textbooks.  Since 1994, textbook prices have increased at four times the rate of inflation.  Today, the average university student spends 20% of his or her tuition money on textbooks alone, with the average community college student spending more than half their tuition on textbooks.  Bottom line: Textbooks pose a real obstacle to low-income families looking to send their kids to college.

A major reason why textbook prices have shot up so dramatically is that textbook publishers are employing unfair tactics in marketing their products.  They bundle their products, so that students purchase just the textbook they need, but also must purchase supplementary materials that they’ll never use.  Publishers also try to hide prices from professors when marketing their products, making it more difficult for faculty and staff to make financially-informed decisions.  And, lately, companies have marketed new editions of textbooks—editions that are barely different from earlier ones—without disclosing the miniscule nature of the changes.

 

The result, predictably, is that professors and students pay huge amounts of money to the publishers, without getting full value for their purchase.  In response to the growing need to rein in textbook prices, a number of legislatures around the country have taken matters into their own hands.  Virginia, for example, recently passed a law requiring governing boards of public post-secondary schools to implement policies to minimize the cost of textbooks for students.  The new guidelines limit the effect of bundling and other deceptive practices on textbook prices, so that students who wouldn’t have been able to afford their course materials now can.

Obviously, implementing measures like Virginia’s won’t end rising post-secondary schooling costs.  But it will put a dent in them.  And right now, we need to be doing everything we can to ensure that our students have every opportunity to afford and attend post-secondary school.  Our children’s futures may very well depend on it.